As college students across the country pressure their universities to confront some unpleasant aspects of their history, the story of one recent graduate shows that it’s possible for students to influence the institutions they attend.
Georgetown University announced earlier this month that the school would offer preferential treatment in admissions to the descendants of slaves whose 1838 sale helped to boost the school’s finances. The elite Washington, D.C. university also announced it would public apologize for its role in the slave trade and changed the names of two buildings that once honored the two presidents who oversaw the sale to instead commemorate both a slave who was part of the sale and a 19th century free black woman who boosted educational opportunities for black girls in the Georgetown neighborhood.
The historical announcement, which was met with fanfare and some controversy, was made possible in large part by Matthew Quallen, 21, who graduated from Georgetown earlier this year. A report released Thursday by the working group convened by Georgetown to make recommendations on how to address the school’s controversial history with slavery cited Quallen’s work as crucial to framing the group’s understanding of the school’s relationship to the slave trade as a uniquely Georgetown problem, instead of simply a Jesuit one.
“In addition to focusing attention on the ways that the school’s interests guided management of the plantations and led to the notorious sale of 1838, Mr. Quallen’s reframing also brings into sharper focus the range of connections the school had to slavery through its social, religious, and commercial connections to the neighborhood of Georgetown, the District of Columbia, and the slave-holding South,” the working group wrote in its report.
MarketWatch spoke with Quallen about his research and interest in the topic as he prepares to move to England to continue his study of history as part of the prestigious Marshall Scholarship program. We’ve included some of the highlights below.
Quallen first became interested in the role of slavery in an institution’s historical narrative after working on a project in his hometown of Farmington, Conn., to track down records of slaves and native Americans in the town. Farmington is known to most residents as a city that played a prominent role in the abolitionist movement, including as a stop on the Underground Railroad. But Quallen was able to find historical records indicating about 25 residents owned slaves. Later, other members of the team found more evidence of slaveholding.
“What it demonstrated that in this town with no historical memory of being involved in institutional slavery, we found slaves being held captive,” he said.
His interest in the topic only grew once he got to Georgetown, particularly after a professor leading a campus scholars program took Quallen and other students on a tour of the school and talked about a “shameful element” in Georgetown’s history — the 19th century sale of slaves to help pay off the school’s debt.
“That was how I learned about this incident taking place,” he said. “What really surprised me was to learn that there were buildings on campus named for people who had participated.”
Quallen began writing about it for the student newspaper and eventually earned a spot on the working group once it was convened by Georgetown’s president. The experience provided him insight into the kinds of changes that can be possible when students and university administrators are able to see eye to eye, which he admits is not often the typical experience of a campus activist.
“It is students’ job to be idealistic, that’s why they’re there. Administrators, meanwhile, live in the world of the practical,” he said. “I think those perspectives can sometimes feel very misaligned.”
The experience of doing research for the working group “helped me to understand some of the ways that as a student and as somebody who writes and as somebody who tries to explain things that happened, how you can make a difference in a way that might not be obvious,” he said.
Quallen acknowledges that he wasn’t the first to write about Georgetown’s history with slavery but his timing was part of the reason why his research got such a wide reception. “The reason that this was able to happen, to a large degree, is that we’re living in the era of Ferguson,” Quallen said, referencing the 2014 killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by police in Ferguson, Missouri, which sparked protests across the country. “This is a story that speaks to something that a lot of students are experiencing today in a way that it might not have spoken to people 10 years ago.”
Still, Quallen notes that such dramatic change may be hard to achieve at other universities, if only because the situation at Georgetown was so clear-cut. At other colleges across the country, campuses are wrestling with how to remember figures with, in some cases, broad national impact who had ties to slavery or racism.
At Georgetown, “we have people whose contributions to the university were tied to slavery,” Quallen said. “At minimum it’s fair to say that we have one of the more extreme cases.”
Representatives from Georgetown University didn’t immediately respond to our request for comment.
View more information: https://www.marketwatch.com/story/meet-the-student-who-helped-georgetown-confront-its-ties-to-slavery-2016-09-02