Washington College History Project seeks to find, acknowledge, and reconcile the College’s legacy of racial injustice

By Erica Quinones

News Editor

Interim President of the College Dr. Wayne Powell introduced the campus community to the Washington College History Project in a Sept. 3 email.

The WC History Project was created by former President of the College Kurt Landgraf, partially in response to national conversations on racial justice, but also building on the College’s ongoing recognition of its complex history regarding its relationship to race, according to Chief of Staff and Chair of the WC History Project Victor Sensenig.

As such, the Project’s mission states that it is dedicated to, as Dr. Powell wrote, studying the College’s “historical connection to enslavement and race-based discrimination, [acknowledging] this history through public statements and actions, and [working] for reconciliation and change in our campus culture in response to this historical legacy.”

This three-part mission statement thus aligned itself into three sub-groups of the wider project: Find, Acknowledge, and Reconcile.

The Find sub-group focuses on uncovering the College’s history regarding race. Much of this work was already occurring in programs like the Chesapeake Heartland: An African American Humanities Project and the research of Arthur A. and Elizabeth R. Knapp Professor of American History and Chair of the Find Committee Dr. Carol Wilson.

Rather than blazing new trails, as Sensenig said, the Project brings to light and consolidates the ongoing research to tell the stories they uncover in a coherent manner.

The history the Project sheds light on is both ugly and more positive, according to Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of the Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience Adam Goodheart.

The ugliness includes the facts that WC was founded largely by slaveholders and income from slave-labor. The College sold enslaved people at least once, and the College was officially racially segregated until the late 1950s — after the 1954 Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka decision. In many ways, according to Goodheart, the history of WC is bound in the history of white supremacy.

This sentiment was shared by sophomore Queen Cornish, a student researcher who examined the wills and probates of WC’s founding fathers in Dr. Wilson’s course, HIS 297: Independent Study of Slavery at WC.

Cornish said that seeing human beings included in the inventory of a will with candlesticks and pillows was jarring, but uncovering this history was not surprising for her.

Before attending WC, she researched the College. Because it was founded in 1782 and most donors were plantation owners, she knew the College was connected to the birth of white supremacy in the United States.

George Washington’s presence, not only as the College’s namesake but also on their Board of Visitors and Governors, denoted a similar point for Cornish.

Washington especially is a figure of discussion for the Project, according to Sensenig, particularly regarding his history as a slave owner and role in the destruction of Native American communities.

Addressing history also means looking at the more contemporary moment.

One member of the Reconcile sub-group, Dr. Ruth Shoge, remembers the College’s more contemporary issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

Dr. Shoge is an associate professor emerita and the former dean of Library and Academic Technology, and first arrived in Chestertown in 1990. Since her arrival in Chestertown 30-years-ago, she has been active in influencing change at WC and continues those efforts even in retirement. 

When she first came to WC, Dr. Shoge said there were only about six Black students and one other Black faculty member. Outside of the international students, she said that, “I think it is fair to say that diversity and inclusion at WC at that time was glaringly lacking.”

Since then, the College has become more diverse. However, Sensenig and Cornish said that the campus and town climates are not welcoming to all students.

Cornish said there were issues of macro- and micro-aggressions on-campus. 

Be it the canceled production of The Foreigner — a play which depicted members of the Ku Klux Klan, which Cornish described as insensitive to Black, neurodivergent, and international students — or the memorializing of founders such as the first President of the College Rev. William Smith, “WC definitely has a long way to go,” Cornish said.

But the history of WC is not entirely “evil,” as Goodheart said. 

Chestertown had one of the first abolitionist groups in the 1780s, and several people involved in that group were directly involved with the College.

Nearly 200-years-later, WC also stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the 1960s Civil Rights movement.

In 1990, former President of the College Dr. Chuck Trout was tasked with changing the monoculture of the College. According to Dr. Shoge, his initiatives had strong support from some faculty and staff, and measurable progress was made.

Dr. Shoge also said that over the past 29 years, she saw WC’s culture change in that they recruited a more ethnically diverse student body; changed their curriculum and programs to make them more ethnically and culturally diverse; created the Diversity Committee and Office of Intercultural Affairs; and founded minority student organizations which have since grown. 

The contrast between both aspects of WC’s history with racial justice highlights both the College’s legacy of oppression and its moments of overcoming injustice, according to Goodheart. 

As a member of the Project, Goodheart said it is essential to engage fully with both sides of WC’s history, but the College has not done so with either aspects of their legacy.

It is a weighty history to come to terms with and make recompense, according to Goodheart. But this Project is part of that process, recognizing that the current inequalities grow directly from the past.

The Acknowledge sub-group is the next step within the Project which engages with the history that Find uncovers, addressing how the College tells their story.

According to Instructional Technologist and Chair of the Acknowledge Committee Raven Bishop, it is important to not simply “drop” communications and walk away. Their communications must cultivate a conversation and engage stakeholders to be effective.

A major part of reaching this goal is in how the communications are crafted. To create robust, clear, and honest messages that do not re-traumatize the people who are affected by the racial histories that the Find sub-group uncovers, the messaging is checked against a multitude of voices.

This is seen in who constitutes the committee. Bishop said that there are many “modalities” of perspectives within the committee, including professors, scholars, students, community members, alumni, board emeriti, technologists, historians, and artists. All of these people have different perspectives, skills, and thinking styles which create a more robust conversation around the communication of hard histories and improves their messaging.

One such voice is Goodheart. As a member of the Acknowledge sub-group, he sees this step as coming to terms with, sharing, and bringing the entire community into dialogue about that uncovered history.

The final sub-group, Reconcile, is concerned with the future. Because the legacy of the College’s racial history contributed to the creation of a culture in which minority students do not feel safe and welcomed, that also means this is a culture which can be changed, according to Sensenig.

Reconcile works with the findings of the other two sub-groups to develop their proposals; they do not have any specific proposals yet, according to Professor of Political Science and International Studies, Director of the International Studies Program, Curator of the Goldstein Program in Public Affairs, and Member of the Reconcile Committee Dr. Christine Wade.

However, they often discuss how the process of truth-seeking and truth-telling will guide them in the proposal process.

“We believe it is very important not to assume what policies or prescriptions that people will prefer, but to listen carefully to those who have been subjected to racist and discriminatory treatment in making our recommendations,” Dr. Wade said.

However, as a professor who teaches transitional justice, Dr. Wade believes it is important to promote both vertical and horizontal reconciliation within the College and town communities. This means that their recommendations would focus on interpersonal reconciliation as well as institutional reconciliation.

For another member of the sub-group, Dr. Shoge, reconciliation regarding slavery is when the parties involved build good human relationships.

According to Dr. Shoge, reconciliation must begin with an apology. Even though this generation is not directly responsible for past wrongs, she said it has benefitted from slavery’s outcomes. 

“Perhaps, to apologize is to begin to make amends,” Dr. Shoge said. “An apology does not have to be a highfalutin decree. It can be a simple statement such as: we are sorry for the multiple levels of pain caused by the past actions of our forefathers; what can I — we — do now, and how can we work together to bring about long-lasting changes.”

One concern of students last year was differentiating between symbolic and meaningful actions, moving beyond speech and enacting policy.

Dr. Shoge said that over her years advocating for issues of diversity, equality, and inclusion, it has become difficult to differentiate between symbolic and meaningful actions.

A symbolic action could be a starting point for change if it results in raising awareness of the issues, according to Dr. Shoge. However, meaningful changes require more effort to create and execute plans that change policies, programs, and behaviors. 

“It is a journey that requires commitment, determination, hard work, persistence, resilience, and faith,” Dr. Shoge said.

For Cornish, part of progress is not just providing space to have these conversations but also examining who takes up space in these conversations. 

Both Cornish and Dr. Shoge said they want to see more Black and Indignous people of color as professors, and Cornish spoke on the importance of genuinely hearing and caring for students of color.

Cornish said she wants WC to recognize that they have students of color who are human beings, who matter, and whose voices should be heard.

“Our voices matter, our perspectives matter,” Cornish said. To recognize this is to “really do right by us students who come to WC, who come here to learn, who come here to build community…We want to know that you [the College] genuinely do care, and do the work to be involved in anti-racist discussions and trainings, to be actively engaged.” 

Cornish’s sentiment of creating a space where students of color are genuinely cared for was shared by Dr. Shoge in why she has continued being an advocate for inclusive movements at WC.

“I learned to listen to students and developed a keen sense of empathy. I had to be relentless in my efforts, which left me exhausted and frustrated at times, but never to the point where I would give up. After all, I had four children growing up in Chestertown, and they spent many hours on campus with me. They and the future Black students who attended WC deserved to be in an environment where they felt welcomed,” Dr. Shoge said.

For Dr. Shoge, the work the Project does in uncovering and addressing WC’s history are necessary steps towards building that better environment. Similar to how her advocacy cultivated deeper empath in herself, she hopes this research will lead to “empathy and a desire for all members of the campus community to work for change as a united and inclusive front.”

“Washington College has been on this steady DEI journey for decades now; we need to keep up the pace, develop the agility to pivot as each crisis demands, and never rest on our laurels, because ‘behind every mountain is another mountain,’” Dr. Shoge said.

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