By Nia Anthony and Alaina Perdon
Elm Staff Writers
As soon as you step foot on campus, it becomes clear that Washington College has almost a shrine-like appreciation for former President George Washington.
His face is plastered on walls, his insignia printed on promotional material, the campus café is named after his wife, and a giant bust of him is located outside of Hodson Commons for all to see.
Like it or not, our identity as an academic institution relies on the popular opinion that Washington was a positive figure. WC even has a yearly ball dedicated to the inaugural president’s birthday.
Over two centuries old, WC has undergone tremendous change since its foundation. While many of the morals and values of 1782 no longer have a place in our campus community, the College cannot simply absolve itself of the transgressions committed between then and now.
Until as last year, the 1790s painting “A View of Chestertown from White House Farm,” hung directly inside the entrance to Bunting Hall. The painting depicted one of the College’s original buildings overlooking a group of Black slaves working on the White House estate. Displayed so prominently, the painting seemed a proud declaration of the College’s historic ties to slavery.
The now-infamous “Bunting Painting” displays an unfavorable point in the College’s history based on the context in which we now view it. It does, however, bear historical significance, and deserves a place on our campus in which it can be used to guide us towards progress. Failure to acknowledge the College’s ties to slavery by hiding such artifacts is a disservice to our predecessors as much as to current members of our community.
We cannot deny our school’s past because we deem it problematic. George Washington was a slave owner, and a number of the older buildings on campus were reportedly built using slave labor. But between brushing these matters under the rug and waving racist paintings like proud banners, there lies a middle ground that allows us to acknowledge the College’s past without romanticizing it.
Should WC have to relinquish its identity and spirit in order to move forward as a safe and inclusive environment, or will we choose to push aside our school’s negative history while keeping the positive bits alive? How do we confront WC’s history while maintaining a positive environment?
Some may argue that because Washington was a slave owner, that makes him inherently racist. Others may suggest that the College was “a product of its time,” and therefore we should separate our negative history from contemporary campus culture.
The more popular opinion, however, is that WC should do much more to confront its negative history.
“I do not think things should be demolished, I think they should be contextualized and preserved,” Cassy Sottile ’20, said. “I am thankful we have things like documents that show we had slaves living on campus because, otherwise, we’d be living in a shadow of a place without getting the full story.”
Through recent racial demonstrations all over the country, we are seeing calls for accountability to confront our country’s dark past. Institutions are slowly trying to take accountability for their racist histories, but no single school has a set blueprint on how to go about it.
In 2019, The New York Times reported that Georgetown University is set to raise $400,000 a year as “reparations” for descendants of slaves directly impacted by the school selling their ancestors.
Princeton Theological Seminary echoed this with a $27 million scholarship fund and a “letter of repentance,” according to their website.
WC has done a few things to acknowledge its history with slavery. A page on the school’s website entitled “Slavery and Freedom at Washington College,” and spearheaded by Arthur A. and Elizabeth R. Knapp Professor of American History Dr. Carol Wilson, includes a digital archive of slaves that lived on the campus prior to the Civil War. The archive shows a detailed account of those connected to WC who owned slaves, their contribution to the school, and even the lives of the slaves themselves.
According to the College website, the team assembled by Dr. Wilson, “takes as its charge the honest and forthright examination of the institution’s troubling historical legacy of racism and the urgent need to acknowledge and reconcile this history in order to dismantle racial injustices in the present moment.”
Additionally, the college’s new interim president, Wayne Powell, introduced the Washington College History Project sponsored by the Richard Holstein Program in Ethics. This project is indented to confront the school’s racist history as well as create a learning environment around ethics in race relations and history.
These steps, though positive, may seem lackluster compared to the grand monetary statements by Georgetown and Princeton Theological Seminary. Perhaps Georgetown and Princeton Seminary’s efforts are simply an expensive way of “saving face” and WC is truly doing the dirty work by conducting research. Or, the opposite, and WC isn’t doing enough.
“As a college, I think the first step is just addressing the issues. The addition to the website is a good step, but I think it needs to be addressed more in courses,” Sottile said. “Making it a part of orientation might be helpful, explaining this is where we come from and this is what we are striving to move away from.”
There are simple ways for WC to confront its history with slavery that are both productive and genuine. The school’s website is a start, but a letter of accountability would show that WC is conscious of its history and how it affects its students today. WC could also utilize its own student body to aid in the healing process.
All WC students are required to take courses on creating a healthy campus environment, including how to navigate identity and racial issues. The college could also provide a course on confronting our history and how it plays a role in our current education systems.
“Most classes do not touch on slavery,” Sottile said. “You cannot look at our college, founded in 1782, and think ‘There is no way this isn’t connected to slavery,’ but no history class talked about it, and there was not any sort of Washington College centered history class previously.”
Students deserve to know the history of their community, especially when said community still struggles with racism and diversity. The College should confront its history with slavery with vigor, using lessons from the past to drive social change in the present.
While faculty and administrators should be working to incorporate these elements of the College’s history into our curriculum and campus proceedings, we as students owe it to each other to keep this conversation going and figure out how we can contribute to the progress of our college.
Featured Photo caption: Washington College has faced complaints for their reverent depiction of their namesake and founder, George Washington, who was a slave owner. Photo by MacKenzie Brady.