Higher education’s racial reckoning reaches far beyond slavery

It now seems, however, that university leaders are a bit too eager to concede higher education’s ties to U.S. slavery, arguably the most explicit form of white supremacy. Pointing to a long-ago slave past has become almost reassuring because it allows schools to acknowledge their historical wrongdoings while celebrating how far they have come. But higher education’s racial reckoning goes far beyond slavery.

Our nation’s system of higher education expanded in the 19th century through the acquisition of lands belonging to Indigenous people, and many institutions continued to protect their wealth through the racial segregation of their neighborhoods. At the same time, student activists at elite universities and community colleges alike worked to challenge racism in higher education and create institutions that served, rather than plundered, their surrounding neighborhoods. This work may provide a road map for what colleges and universities can do now to repair the racial sins of their more recent past.

In the late 19th century, the Morrill Land-Grant Acts of 1862 and 1890 helped fund public universities that opened up higher education to larger segments of the nation. The Morrill Act first distributed public-domain lands to states that could then be used or sold to build the financial endowments of universities. Yet, the 10.7 million acres for this project were actually Indigenous lands, confiscated through seizure or suspect land treaties. A recent High Country News article reveals that the money made from these land sales continues to benefit universities, and at least 12 states continue to hold titles to unsold acres and profit from associated mineral rights. Both rural colleges and city schools, ranging from MIT to the University of Minnesota, built their endowments on this seizure of Indigenous land.

The 1890 version of the act extended land grants to the former Confederate states but through direct cash payments. To their credit, lawmakers included a clause prohibiting racial discrimination in admissions. Yet, rather than enforcing the integration of land-grant schools, the law provided funds to Southern states so they could build separate and underfunded historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). With that decision, the federal government used higher education policy to help reinforce racial segregation. This government-funded Jim Crow university system emerged six years before the “separate but equal doctrine” of Plessy v. Ferguson became the law of the land.

Higher education’s impact on racial segregation extended into the 20th century, and it did not stop at the Mason-Dixon Line. During the first wave of the Great Migration in Chicago, Black Americans moved to the near-northwest of the University of Chicago’s Hyde Park campus in the 1920s and 1930s. University administrators treated these new arrivals as significant threats to property values in the campus neighborhood. Scholars from the famed “Chicago School” of social science helped justify Jim Crow-style zoning policies across the country with such academic theories as “human ecology,” which described racial segregation in cities as a product of nature.

University of Chicago administrators followed suit by underwriting racially restrictive housing covenants for the notorious Hyde Park and Kenwood neighborhood associations. These were legally binding agreements to prevent the sale or lease of property to Black Americans or homeownership by them. While the university has never officially acknowledged its explicit role in racial segregation, local residents understood it all too well. In the 1930s, Black Chicagoans called these covenants “the University of Chicago Agreement to get rid of Negroes.”

The university’s attempts to enforce residential segregation continued. When Shelley v. Kramer (1948) rendered restrictive covenants unenforceable by law, the University of Chicago responded by purchasing and demolishing buildings that could potentially face racial integration. The school also increased the rent levels of subsidized faculty and employee housing to help “maintain the white population” around campus.

By 1959, University of Chicago administrators helped coordinate 14 urban universities into a lobbying group that successfully pushed for a change to the Federal Housing Act of 1949 that bolstered efforts at racial segregation. Dubbed the “Section 112 credits program,” this initiative triggered a 2 to 1 federal matching grant for any urban renewal program on or near a college or university up to five years before the program even began. City schools from the University of Pennsylvania to the University of Birmingham at Alabama used this program to turn their campuses into largely barricaded zones of learning to stem the tide of Black and Latino residents living nearby. By 1964, 154 projects were supported by the 112 program that involved 120 colleges and universities and 75 hospitals.

Last year, in a statement to the University of Chicago community, President Robert J. Zimmer and Provost Ka Yee C. Lee acknowledged this “complicated” relationship with the surrounding neighborhood that, at times, was characterized “by discord and mistrust.” Encouragingly, the University of Chicago message acknowledged the need to be better understand this history to allow the university “to fully realize” its potential “to have a positive impact in the city that is our home.”

But Chicago was not alone among Northern schools in advancing racism and racial segregation. A student journalist at Harvard recently discovered an incident in which White students burned a cross near where Black students lived in 1955.

While big universities became the polite face of racial segregation, community colleges offer a lost model for building more equitable institutions and cities. Merritt College, for example, became an educational extension of North Oakland’s Black community where reading groups, cafeteria conversations, street speaking and sponsored tours to Cuba helped lay the groundwork for the Black Panther Party for Self-defense, founded in 1966. Black students took control of Crane Junior College in 1968 and renamed it Malcolm X Community College. They not only increased financial aid and created a prison annex to educate incarcerated residents, but also hired unarmed workers from a Black-owned security firm to replace the off-duty Chicago police officers who patrolled the campus.

In 1969, Black students led a massive protest with Puerto Rican and White allies at New York’s Brooklyn and City colleges, demanding the admission of more students of color. These students insisted that the city’s tuition-free colleges should help correct a segregated and inferior school system by providing the bridge instruction to prepare a broader range of taxpaying citizens for social mobility. This political action set the stage for a landmark 1970 open-admissions policy, with support services, over the next three decades.

This radical activism insisted on a more equitable educational system in service to the communities in which colleges sit. While recent decades have witnessed a period of rising enrollments for students of color, these numbers were matched by a drastic state disinvestment in higher education. Schools have responded by passing the costs on to students in a debt crisis that disproportionately affects students of color, while also gobbling up real estate in the very same working-class neighborhoods of color they historically avoided. Higher education continues to work as an engine of inequality rather than opportunity.

Delving deeper into the archive of higher education’s racial history demands a reckoning that reaches far beyond slavery. This is a history that stretches from human bondage and land seizures to residential segregation and neighborhood demolitions, with a legacy of inheritance that certainly touches our present. Yet, the true power of this archive goes beyond the institutions. It also contains the seeds for higher education’s own liberation, as with the examples set by radical student activism in the 1960s and 1970s. Ultimately, any true accounting for the sins of the past must repair the structural devastation inflicted on Black, Latino and Indigenous communities, all in the name of a higher education.

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