How to Acknowledge a Shameful Past

Universities across America are apologizing for their checkered histories.

"It seemed like reaching for the moon," Barbara Rose Johns (1935–1991). In 1951, at the age of 16, she organized a student strike for equal education at Moton High School in Farmville, Prince Edward County, VA. (Ron Cogswell/Flickr )

I grew up in a small, rural Virginia town where white leaders closed the public schools rather than allow the black and white children to attend school together in the aftermath of the landmark Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education.

As a reporter and a mother of mixed-race children, I wanted to know more about how my hometown became the only community in the nation to close its schools for five years, shutting 1,700 black children—and some whites—out of an education. On my journey to understand the history, I reflected on how the town’s publicly funded college had looked the other way rather than intervene on behalf of the black children. Now, after decades of silence, Longwood University, once a state teachers’ college, has apologized for supporting segregation and is taking tangible steps to demonstrate its remorse.

And what Longwood’s doing is being repeated across the nation. Respected universities that have long represented the best of what America offers are owning up to shameful pasts, from slavery to the mistreatment of Native Americans. In some cases, the institutions are apologizing for past moral failings, as Longwood has in Prince Edward County. Others are going even further, with faculty incorporating the long-overlooked histories into their instruction and administrators reaching out to disenfranchised communities that were once excluded from campus life.

In Prince Edward County, the university’s new president, W. Taylor Reveley IV, 40, went on the record to say he was "deeply sorry" for the college’s role in massive resistance to school desegregation. He is also offering a scholarship for a student passionate about equal access to education and proposing a partnership with the county’s civil rights museum.

While Reveley, like me, is too young to have witnessed Prince Edward's segregationist past, he feels connected to its history. That’s in part because his grandfather became president of nearby Hampden-Sydney College during the school closures, which lasted from 1959 to 1964. And unlike the other college in the area, Longwood declined to invite Robert F. Kennedy to speak when he visited the town in 1964 to address the crisis.

"There were still some things that lingered about the way Longwood acted, especially during massive resistance, that I thought needed to be talked about squarely," Reveley said.

Two hours away in colonial Williamsburg, Reveley’s father, W. Taylor Reveley III, is making amends, too. The president of the College of William and Mary, the older Reveley also decided to address his school’s history of slavery and has overseen an investigation into its past. The elite public institution in 2009 acknowledged it had "owned and exploited slave labor from its founding to the Civil War" and that it had "failed to take a stand against segregation during the Jim Crow Era."

Blacks have long felt they weren’t welcome on this campus unless they were pushing a broom, said Jody L. Allen, a history professor who oversees an initiative at William and Mary that’s researching the history of African Americans at the college and encouraging black residents to come to campus.  A list of 15 people enslaved by the college has been discovered  through the Lemon Project. In fact, the initiative is named after one of those slaves—a man known simply as "Lemon" who died in 1817. The project has uncovered just how much slavery pervaded the school’s history, from the tobacco plantation it purchased in 1718—whose profits funded scholarships for poor whites—to its president in the 1830s, who became a thought leader in opposition to abolition. That legacy continued through the 1960s, when a  proponent of school segregation was named president as a reward for the work he had done to prevent integration.

"Ignoring our history doesn’t make it go away. It always ends up bubbling back up to the top at some point," Allen said. "It may be squished down for a while but it will always come up in different ways."

I feel the same way about the resistance among some people in my hometown to acknowledging its past.

The Lemon Project has for a number of years hosted annual symposiums that bring community members together to share research and discuss how to confront this past. At the first one five years ago, community members recalled how they were treated during the Jim Crow era and made it clear, Allen said, that it’s up to the institution to repair its relationship with the groups it once marginalized: "That’s why we need to deal with our history, or they will never start to feel like William and Mary is a place for them."

And it’s not just about apologizing for its treatment of blacks, as some faculty have suggested. Rather, it’s about engaging with and responding to this newly acknowledged history. "Uncovering it and then not doing anything with it," Allen said, "is not much better than doing nothing in the first place."

Instead, Allen wants this history to become part of the curriculum. She also wants the college’s admissions office to share newly uncovered stories with prospective students on tours of campus, and for William and Mary to be a model for how to negotiate a tragic past—setting an example for nearby plantations open to tourists that are not yet analyzing black history on their grounds.

Other colleges are taking similar approaches. The University of Virginia in Charlottesville, for example, hosts an online "scholars lab" for researchers to share their knowledge and provides visitors with a guide that outlines the college’s history with slavery, among other initiatives. And Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond is hosting a series of public discussions about human bones it discovered in a well on campus—the remains of some 50 corpses that grave robbers brought to the medical school by looting black cemeteries.

But these efforts to face tragic pasts aren’t limited to Virginia, a state known for its legacy of widespread slavery and intense efforts to keep schools segregated. In fact, over the last decade or so, dozens of other institutions around the country have begun studying their own histories of slave ownership, including universities in the North. For one, there’s Brown University, whose former president, Ruth Simmons, in 2003 took the initiative to acknowledge her institution’s history of slavery. This  move prompted new academic programs at the university and, according to at least one advocate, served as a tipping point in the national trend toward confronting shameful pasts. Brown for its part had relied on slaves to construct a campus building and was founded by a slave owner.

Theophus Smith, acting director of the Atlanta-based Southern Truth and Reconciliation resource center, said the idea of confronting these wrongs dates back to black student movements of the 1960s. But he also attributed the progress to academic leaders of color, like Simmons, who began to see the inherent conflict of heading an institution whose resources were indebted to the exploitation of his or her race. "This has become a kind of … a measure of leadership integrity to acknowledge what had increasingly become just an open secret that people are ignoring," said Smith, an associate professor of religion at Emory University. Since Simmons’ work, the thinking on many campuses is that "it would be a form of intellectual dishonesty and hypocrisy and sham to have faculties who have … the data of exploitations, of misrepresentation, of misuse and not to act on that knowledge."

At Harvard, four undergraduates came together in 2007 to research the university’s slave ownership. Undergraduates at the University of Maryland found that at least 16 of the school's original 24 trustees were slave owners. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that slaves helped construct the first buildings on campus and created an online exhibit that documents their contributions to the institution. And Atlanta’s Emory University has apologized to its black and Jewish communities for failing to treat them with dignity and justice, recently completing a project to explore its racial history. In 2011, Emory hosted the first-ever conference to discuss research of universities’ history of slavery, attracting an international audience—and in 2012, the college president officially apologized to Jewish dental students who had been failed or harassed at the school between 1948 and 1961.

Indeed, injustices against an array of marginalized groups are being unearthed. Northwestern University’s provost formed a committee in 2013 to investigate whether the school’s founder played a role in the massacre of more than 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho people in Colorado in 1864. Scholars found that while the founder, John Evans, did not plan the attack, his conduct after the massacre—failing to acknowledge or criticize it—"reveals a deep moral failure that warrants condemnation" that the university had ignored. "This oversight goes against the fundamental purposes of a university and Northwestern’s own best traditions, and it should be corrected," the committee found.

Still, it’s worth noting that even as the academic arms of universities around the country acknowledge the history and work to reconcile, some athletics programs have stuck by discriminatory team names and mascots. A 2005 NCAA ruling that banned Native American mascots in postseason failed to compel some Division I schools to abandon derogatory names.

While some say the apologies from universities are too little, too late, I would argue that they are needed to move communities forward, and, more than that, they are often deeply appreciated. James E. Ghee, president of Prince Edward County’s NAACP chapter, requested Longwood’s apology when the partnership with the Robert Russo Moton Museum was proposed last year. Ghee, who missed two years of education because of the county’s school closures, said many black residents do not trust Longwood and are not ready to cede part of the museum management to the university.

"I thought there needed to be some acknowledgement of the fact that (the university) had done wrong and was hoping to begin doing things differently than they had done in the past," Ghee said, describing the apology as "a gloss over." Ghee said the university, which has only 10 full or part-time African American or black faculty members, can show its commitment to reconciling by recruiting additional tenured black faculty.

The proposed agreement between Longwood University and the museum, which may include a research arm like William and Mary’s, has not yet been finalized. Housed in a former black high school, the museum, a national historic landmark, tells the story of a walkout by black students in 1951 to protest the school's overcrowded, dilapidated conditions. A lawsuit filed on behalf of the teenagers became one of the five Brown v. Board cases. It also traces the school closures in the county and the establishment of a private academy for white students.

Working together, the university and the museum "can really help to reshape the way the history of the civil rights movement is told and the way American history is told," said Larissa Smith Fergeson, the Longwood administrator who serves as the liaison to the museum.

Justin G. Reid, who oversees operations at Moton, resents any insinuation that the museum needs the help of the mostly white university, emphasizing that the two institutions have a mutually beneficial relationship that formed organically. Still, Reid, whose relatives have worked as activists in the county for generations, thinks more research by local scholars is necessary before people affected by the school closures can accept the apology.

Dorothy Holcomb, who also missed out on schooling because of the desegregation battles and chairs the museum’s community building and advisory board, is among the many community members who view the apology as progress. "It pleases me to have somebody … come up and take ownership for what happened," she said. "Sometimes we wait a long time for an apology."