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Penn’s ‘profoundly painful’ past: At least 75 of the school’s earliest trustees owned slaves

Penn President Amy Gutmann announces university's links to slavery and promises to take action.

Penn President Amy Gutmann announces the university's intention to recognize its hundreds-year old ties to slavery.
Penn President Amy Gutmann announces the university's intention to recognize its hundreds-year old ties to slavery.Read moreYong Kim / Staff Photographer

The University of Pennsylvania announced Friday that it will take steps to recognize the school's hundreds-of-years-old ties to slavery, an issue unearthed by undergraduate students and their professor during research last fall.

Penn president Amy Gutmann said in a statement that "no fewer than 75 of the university's early trustees owned at least one enslaved person" and that the work of slaves was used to support Penn faculty and students. Some of its faculty and alumni advocated for slavery and supported the Confederacy, while its medical school faculty engaged in "racial pseudoscience," she said, citing findings from a university committee.

"This was a profoundly painful and odious part of our nation's history," Gutmann said. "No segment of American society or institution founded during the 18th century, including the University of Pennsylvania, escaped its scourge. Far from it."

The university, she said, will continue its research, develop a site to share the information, and join a consortium of other universities studying their ties to slavery.

Penn's announcement comes after similar steps by other universities founded in the colonial era, including Georgetown and Princeton Universities. Georgetown, which profited from the sale of slaves, has said it would offer preferential treatment in admissions to descendants of slaves.

Whether Penn will take similar steps will be something to discuss as more research is done, said Joann Mitchell, senior vice president for institutional affairs and chief diversity officer. "One of the things we haven't gotten to yet is what to make of it and what seems to be the right course of action," she said.

Penn's commitment follows research by the Penn Slavery Project, a group of undergraduate students and professor Kathleen Brown, who first uncovered some of Penn's ties to slavery, though the university in the past downplayed any significant links. Gutmann then established a committee to look into the matter; the report this week came from that group, citing the student research and augmenting it.

"We learned a lot from what they had said," Mitchell said, "and we knew there was clearly a lot more we needed to know and wanted to know."

Students were thrilled with the recognition and that their university was stepping up to face its past.

"It sends a very strong message that our work as undergraduates is important, that we're valued, that we're equal members of the team with faculty," said Dillon Kersh, 20, a junior history major and one of six student researchers on the project.

Brown said she wanted to research Penn's ties after seeing what other universities had done. Her students were eager to help. Her class schedule was booked, so she ran it as independent study.

"It really put a lot of burden on them to do the work independently, and they rose to the occasion," Brown said. She said as soon as university officials "realized we were on to something, they were really supportive."

Brown and her students will continue research in the fall with support from the university.

Included in the findings was that Penn's first provost, William Smith, was among the 75 early trustees (out of 121) who owned slaves. But the ties ran deeper.

"For 13 years, from 1757 to 1770, the university's trustees reimbursed Ebenezer Kinnersley, Penn's first professor of English and oratory, who also was a dormitory steward, for the work of an enslaved man that he owned," Gutmann said. "In this and other ways, the labor of enslaved people was used to support and care for Penn faculty and students."

One medical school faculty member, John Morgan, owned at least one slave and traveled to Jamaica to seek funds from families who owned slaves, the report found. Medical school faculty, under dean William Horner, were instrumental in promoting "racial pseudoscience," she said.

Furthermore, Penn faculty and alumni "were actively involved in framing the Constitution to support slavery and in administering state slavery laws," Gutmann said.  An alumnus and math professor, Hugh Williamson, "was instrumental in arguing for the insertion of the three-fifths clause into the U.S. Constitution," which counted slaves as three-fifths of a person, she said. And other alumni who owned enslaved people were "prominent leaders or supporters" of the Confederacy.