UChicago’s History with Slavery is Still Present

To the University of Chicago, Its Trustees, Its President Robert J. Zimmer, and Its Provost Ka Yee C. Lee:

We write to express our profound disappointment at President Robert Zimmer and Provost Ka Yee Lee’s recent announcement regarding the University of Chicago’s historical ties to slavery and its founder Stephen A. Douglas. After years of community organizing and academic research on this topic, the University’s official stance has hardly budged. The University remains mired in the stance toward its origins in slavery that it has held since its founding in 1856: embarrassed denial.

The administration’s secret, unilateral decision to remove two Douglas monuments from public view (something that students, faculty, and community organizations had never publicly demanded or been consulted about) can only be read as an attempt to erase, rather than contend with, its ties to slavery. The announcement that informed the University community of this maneuver only after the fact makes the untenable claim that the memorials were to a man and a former campus that it has “no connection” to. This dodging of responsibility is strikingly similar in its logic to the U.S. Senate’s 2009 Resolution No. 26 that acknowledged the harms of slavery and Jim Crow while somehow arguing that this acknowledgement does not “suppor[t] any claim against the United States.”

To the extent that the administration can muster an argument to defend this truly bizarre position, it seems to be an essentially reductionist one. Rather than think of universities as rich social, cultural, political, intellectual, and institutional networks of people, buildings, research, scholarly communities, money, power, etc., the administration’s construal of the past would have us believe that, ontologically, a university is little more than a fictitious legal business entity. This attempt to legalize a complex set of moral and historical questions is at best disingenuous and at worst anti-intellectual.

Either way, the University’s insistence that the entirety of its past can be reduced institutionally to its most recent legal entity flies in the face of how every other major university in the world keeps time. Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Columbia, and nearly every university founded prior to the 20th century can find multiple charters, campuses, incorporating documents, and breaks in operation running through their collective histories. Yet the University of Chicago stands alone as the only elite university to mark its founding via its most recent legal entity rather than its earliest.

Why is that? Is it because recognizing its 1856 founding forces the University to acknowledge its slaveholding origins and contend with that legacy? Is it because it involves admitting that the University of Chicago would simply not exist without slavery? Is it because it forces the institution to contend with the University’s subsequent financial support of Jim Crow, its drive towards gentrification, and its horrific record of policing Black Chicago? Difficult as these conversations may be, the campus community is now duty-bound to have them.

In that spirit, we call upon the administration to immediately begin meeting in good faith with community organizations on the South Side of Chicago to develop a comprehensive reparative justice process to fully make amends for the University’s past while building a new relationship with Black Chicago going forward. While this long-term and ongoing process will no doubt lead to more detailed action items, the University need not wait to take action in “making positive and sustainable change on issues of racial bias and inequalities.” These same community organizations who have been rebuffed in seeking a dialog with the administration for years have already articulated how UChicago as an institution can begin healing the harms of the past. These include but are not limited to:

  • Establishing a permanent Center for Reparative Justice, funded by UChicago but staffed and controlled by the community to advance the reparative process at the University, city, state, national, and international levels;
  • Signing the Community Benefits Agreement for the Obama Presidential Library;
  • Disarming, defunding, and abolishing the University of Chicago Police Department
  • Closing the UChicago Crime Lab;
  • Reallocating funds to community health care, housing, and education;
  • Publicly acknowledging 1856 as the official founding date of the University of Chicago;
  • Publicly acknowledging and honoring the 123 enslaved peoples who made the University of Chicago possible;
  • Working with the City of Chicago, the State of Illinois, and the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency to fund community programing and restore community control of the Douglas Tomb site.

These measures, all emanating from grassroots community organizations, should all be seen as starting points, not finish lines. Any attempt to undo the harms of slavery, Jim Crow, and institutional racism will forever be an incomplete, ongoing process. Many of the harms that the University is directly responsible for can never be entirely undone. But still, it must try. It is through that very trying—though an honest truth-telling process—that attempts to meet the needs of those who have been harmed (as defined by those who have been harmed themselves) can give birth to the new world that our current moment is demanding.

The University community thus finds itself at a crossroads. Future legacies are being built through the decisions of the present. Those with the courage to meet this moment will be judged kindly by the historians of tomorrow. Those who cower in the face of the past will undoubtedly be looked upon with scorn by future generations.

We encourage the campus community to continue organizing. We encourage off-campus organizations to continue wrestling with slavery and its afterlives—even if UChicago’s administration continues their attempt to relegate them to the dustbin of history.

The archive is a living thing. A lump of bronze and a brick of stone safely carted off into a dusty building can never kill the world that slavery built. Only people, working together in a reparative framework, can do that. For those who say that the University, the country, or the world is not yet ready for reparations, we can only ask:

If not now, then when?


The Bronzeville Historical Society

The National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA)

The Reparations at UChicago Working Group (RAUC)