Tulane must actively address racist history

There is little doubt that slavery was integral to the founding of Tulane. The Medical College of Louisiana, which would later become Tulane University, was founded in 1834 and predates the Civil War. There is evidence that slave money or labor helped in the formation of the university or the construction of the buildings, but this history is not widely known within the Tulane community.

Tulane’s historical records are certainly accessible in the archives for those interested. The people who are interested, however, are not the same people who need to learn and accept the darker aspects of the university’s history. It would best serve the university as a whole if Tulane would fund a collection of these histories and make them accessible to a wider audience. It would allow students, faculty and staff to begin understanding the nature and legacy of slavery in the South and at Tulane.

This approach has already been implemented with success at other private universities. Last year, Rutgers University Press published “Scarlet and Black,” a collection of history essays written by graduate students on the displacement of Native Americans and use of slave labor in the founding of Rutgers. “Ebony and Ivy” was a 2006 report commissioned by Brown University detailing its connection to the Atlantic slave trade. These works have been presented on campus and made available to students for study.

Making these histories widely accessible does not weaken a person’s loyalty to an institution or foster distaste. Rather, it can offer a timeline of progress and direction to move forward. In this, Tulane might strengthen its relationship with students who have had identities largely ignored in the university’s history.

Hiding these histories by simply changing a name or taking no action does the opposite. Moreover, the lack of funding to research and promote these materials is a failing on the part of Tulane. The Undoing Racism workshop, put on every year by Students Organizing Against Racism, is a great example of work being done to promote anti-racist efforts on campus. The university can support this work by funding it, providing funding to continue similar work and, furthermore, publishing a collected work on the racist history of the university.

These actions would make a powerful impact not only within the Tulane community but within the New Orleans and Southern communities at large.

It makes sense that the universities to lead this charge are located in the Northeast. The South has a long history of denying its racism or normalizing it, as seen in the arguments against removing Confederate monuments in New Orleans. As the monuments have finally been approved for removal, Tulane should continue this momentum by acknowledging the darker aspects of its past. Perhaps the rest of the city will follow beyond the issue of the Confederate monuments. At the very least, it will provide an example of how the issue of racism in public history should be addressed.

The first step to fixing a problem is to acknowledge it. Before Tulane, and the rest of the country, can heal from the generational trauma that is the legacy of slavery, it must be acknowledged.

Tulane University has the opportunity to begin this healing process.

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