Groups Advocate Reparations and University History at Teach-In

Audience discussion became heated over different interpretations of the University’s history.

By Caroline Kubzansky, Managing Editor ('20-'21)

Reparations at UChicago (RAUC) partnered with UChicago Socialists and UofC Resists to hold a teach-in on Monday evening about the University’s contested relationship with slavery and the best way going forward for the University to confront this alleged past.

The RAUC draws a connection between the first University of Chicago, which slave owner and Congressman Stephen Douglas helped bankroll in 1856, and the current University. It is on these grounds that they argue the University should give reparations to descendants of Douglas’s slaves and the predominantly black South Side.

The teach-in featured speakers from organizations including Graduate Students United (GSU), Black Lives Matter, the Obama Library South Side Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) Coalition, and the Association of Black Psychologists. The meeting focused on clarifying the line of reasoning in the RAUC’s argument as to why the current University is morally and legally responsible for compensating damages from slavery.

RAUC speakers also advocated for the University to agree to negotiations for a CBA as a way of making indirect reparations to the South Side community.

Obari Cartman, president of Chicago’s chapter of the Association of Black Psychologists, highlighted how the damage done both to direct descendants of slaves in Chicago and to the greater community of African descent is not repairable through monetary compensation alone. He cited the loss of culture after generations of slavery and assimilation and the cultural memory of trauma in black communities, which he does not believe white-dominated psychological theory is well equipped to deal with.

“If we’re serious about doing anything to restitute, we have to be thinking about this on a much deeper level than we’re comfortable with,” he said.

Kofi Ademola of Black Lives Matter added that reparations are not just a reaction to a historical bygone, but a way to handle current problems on the South Side. He referenced the tense relationship between community members and the University of Chicago Police Department, increasing development in Woodlawn, and rising housing prices in lower-income areas.

“There are real things to be redressed right now. This is something that is really impacting people,” he said.

A representative from the CBA Coalition reaffirmed that an agreement which included South Side residents in development decisions could function as an indirect form of reparations.

“If you’re taking tax dollars, you have to ensure benefits for the people you’re taking tax dollars from,” he said. 

Some attendees of the teach-in did not agree with the RAUC’s claims about slavery and the University.

“I don’t find that your statements in the paper are documented. I am absolutely for getting after the University of Chicago for its crimes of great magnitude over many years,” one attendee said, “but taking it back to 1856 is absolutely a non-starter. The money of the original University of Chicago was owing to slavery, but they went broke. They went bankrupt….If you don’t use historical evidence, the rest of your statements, which are true, will be laughed at.”

RAUC member and postdoctoral student Guy Emerson told the attendee that his claim was false, eliciting an agitated response from the attendee. After other attendees protested that the attendee should listen to Emerson, he stormed out of the meeting, shouting, “This is bullshit!”

Another attendee, adult education teacher Adam Rose, continued the debate by emphasizing the importance of maintaining historical accuracy and not shutting down dissenters.

Retired history teacher and attendee Owen Lawson disagreed with Rose. He argued that much of what the questioner referred to as documented history is mythology, referencing what he said as widespread historical whitewashing.

“I had to go my entire education without talking about African history. If we’re flying the flag of historical accuracy, let’s be consistent,” he said.