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Universities look to the past to understand their relationships with race


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Judy Woodruff: In the aftermath of police killings of Black men and women, and amidst renewed calls in Congress to consider a reparations commission, American institutions of all kinds have looked to their pasts and presents to understand their own relationships to racism.

That reckoning continues at colleges and universities, many of which have direct connections to the history of slavery.

Jeffrey Brown has our report.

It's part of our Race Matters series and our arts and culture coverage, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: On the campus of the University of Virginia, a new memorial to the thousands of enslaved people who helped build the school and then worked there, craftsmen, construction workers, cooks, domestic servants.

Some of their names are known. Most, more than 3,000, remain anonymous, honored by so-called memory marks in the stone.

Kirt von Daacke: And this site was picked intentionally because it was visible to and gestures to the community.

Jeffrey Brown: Historian Kirt von Daacke helped lead the effort to uncover his school's past.

Kirt von Daacke: This story has to be visible on our landscape in a way that the casual visitor will understand when they visit here. And we have to acknowledge, right, the humanity, the skill, the life, the labor of the enslaved, and do it in a way that responds to current community concerns.

And I think our memorial really does a fantastic job of that. But it's not an end. It's a beginning.

Jeffrey Brown: It's a story often hidden in plain sight, as in this 19th century engraving, intended to capture the campus in all its glory, there on a balcony, an enslaved woman holding the child of a professor.

The campus was designed and founded in 1819 by Thomas Jefferson, drafter of the Declaration of Independence and slave owner, the embodiment of the contradictions of U.S. history.

Kirt von Daacke: The American academy writ large, not just UVA, has been built on, right, money from the slave trade, built by enslaved people. It has a very long financial and human history tied up in this story that universities in some way are now coming to terms with.

Jeffrey Brown: It's not just in the South. Higher education's look within began early in the 2000s, several schools, including Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.

Ruth Simmons: What can we do to suggest ways of being in the world that improve upon everybody's life?

Jeffrey Brown: Then-President Ruth Simmons, the first African-American to serve as president of an Ivy League school and herself the great-granddaughter of slaves, says, when she looked for the history, she found little.

Ruth Simmons: And so what's the reason for that? I think slavery was an uncomfortable topic for people for so long in this country. And rather than deal with the issues involving slavery, people simply deleted the reference.

And if you delete it long enough, of course, what happens is that there is this systematic forgetting of the history.

Jeffrey Brown: As documented in a landmark 2006 report, the history was all around, including lists of slaves trafficked in ship's owned by John Brown, one of the school's founders, his former home across the street from the president's residence.

Ruth Simmons: That's the thing, is that we were surrounded by evidence of Brown's relationship to slavery at one time, and yet we chose to ignore it. And we basically built a new narrative around it.

Jeffrey Brown: With a more painful past revealed, Brown took a number of steps, including creating a new Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, to further explore the history through scholarship and exhibitions. And it commissioned a public artwork titled "Slave Memorial" by prominent Black artist Martin Puryear.

Ruth Simmons: To me, it always seemed the most important element of it was the truth-telling.

So, if you -- if one wants to atone for lying for so many decades, centuries even, the clear indication is that you should atone for that by telling the truth. And so the report, to me, was the most important.

And it has lived long, actually, and I think has been borne out by what followed, because that report has become the document that so many other institutions have used to follow that same course.

Jeffrey Brown: A consortium founded at the University of Virginia, "Universities Studying Slavery," has grown to more than 70 members from five countries, in some cases moving beyond slavery times to study Jim Crow era racism and injustices against Native Americans, their lands taken for use by Western colleges.

Importantly, historically Black colleges and universities are also looking at their histories, and, in some cases, partnering with majority-white schools on research and other projects.

Ruth Simmons is now president of one prominent HBCU, Prairie View A&M University in Texas.

Ruth Simmons: One of the things that we are committed to doing is making sure that these matters enter curricula, and that people stop being afraid, afraid of the truth, afraid to teach what really transpired.

Jeffrey Brown: But after a year of protests in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd and other Black men and women, universities, like other institutions, face renewed calls to go beyond research and teaching.

Leslie M. Harris: This is the recurring question: What now? I think the what now is, there's no simple solution, but it's an awareness and a consciousness and a working through of the problem.

Jeffrey Brown: Leslie Harris, an historian now at Northwestern University, has studied both the past and contemporary efforts. The movement for direct monetary reparations has grown, but remains controversial.

Harris and others propose another way in.

Leslie M. Harris: I want to remind people that the root of that word is repair. How do we repair, how do we make whole relationships and communities that have been driven apart? And that can come in many different ways.

Jeffrey Brown: Colleges are often the largest landowners and employers in their cities, with direct influence on housing costs and jobs. They employ their own police and security forces, in some cases exacerbating tensions with the surrounding community.

Leslie M. Harris: We could -- I could do the history all day of how we got here in terms of policing, how we got here in terms of real estate.

The question, though, then becomes -- and this is definitely a question for higher education institutions -- it is not simply about studying and understanding and then putting the book on the shelf and say, phew, now I understand. It is about, how do we move forward differently?

Jeffrey Brown: Study and remember what happened, and seek repair.

At a pivot point for American institutions of all kinds, scholars and activists are saying, universities have a unique role to play.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

Judy Woodruff: Continue to ask the questions, continue to seek the answers.

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