Uncovering history: WashU & Slavery

| Managing Scene Editor

In recent years, academic institutions across the United States, including Washington University, have embarked on initiatives to confront the historical connections between universities and slavery. The Washington University and Slavery Project, which began in the summer of 2020, aims to not only document the university’s historical involvement with slavery, but also to promote transparency and dialogue about this challenging topic in American history. 

Professor Geoff Ward, the director of the WashU & Slavery Project, highlighted the three key reasons behind this project. First, it is an opportunity for students and staff to encounter such topics and questions related to the legacy of slavery, connecting historical understanding with individuals’ perceptions of self-worth and value. “Most students won’t take a class about slavery and its legacy, whether due to class time conflicts or discomfort with the subject matter. Thus, this project provides [students] a broader basis to engage,” said Ward. 

Secondly, the WashU & Slavery Project aims to prepare students to address questions related to the contemporary impact of slavery within their communities and professions. Ward stated, “This year, a new program, called the WashU & Slavery Project Scholars, was created to allow students to directly participate, whether through research, documentation, or immersive learning opportunities.” 

The program, which offers scholarships of up to $2,500, helps offset the cost of study abroad and travel for students who are interested in understanding not only St. Louis’ connection to colonialism and slavery, but global legacies as well. In addition, there are semester-long paid positions for students to contribute to research by creating Storymaps of key figures, studying WashU’s archival collections, or adding to public databases such as Slave Voyages and the Saint Louis Integrated Database of Enslavement. 

Third, Ward explains his hope that this project will help WashU build distinction as an institution in the St. Louis area, an area with a long legacy of slavery and colonialism. The project has not only focused on within campus, but has continued to engage with the local community. 

“Henry Shaw, an enslaver, was not only the founder of WashU’s School of Botany, but also of the Missouri Botanical Garden. WashU has now partnered with the Missouri Botanical Garden to recontextualize Shaw and foster cooperation with the local St. Louis community,” said Ward.

Beyond just the Missouri Botanical Garden, the WashU & Slavery Project has also reached out to several churches in the area created by WashU’s founding fathers. With such a connection, the collaboration aims to explore how these individuals relate to their religion with such a complex history of racism. 

Beyond just the project goals, Ward delved into both the ups and downs of the journey so far. 

“Language itself is violent — people are called ‘slaves,’ but think about it. This term has been desensitized by the general public so much. Instead, people should be described as ‘enslaved people,’” Ward said. This shift in language acknowledges the involuntary nature of their status and using “enslaved people” is a representational act that aligns with the principles of respect. 

In addition, research is certainly challenging when its subject is not documented well. It’s complicated to assess how the university is entangled with slavery, but “this initiative has brought me closer to so many different units — the medical school, law school, but most importantly, the students,” said Ward.

“It has been most rewarding to see and hear our community partners and the St. Louis residents express gratitude for the questions they thought had been neglected for so long.” 

Looking forward, the WashU & Slavery project is excited to enter its second phase of its initiative and has recently just received funding for the next three years. Ward notes goals to increase student participation with the help of the new scholarships, as well as expanding to other local community and campus engagements. 

“It’s crucial to consider strategies for sustaining and expanding this project, ensuring its longevity and integration as a fundamental part of WashU for years to come.”

Mugshot of Henry Shaw who held over 13 people in slavery while also founding School of
Botany (Courtesy of Geoff Ward).


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