slavery
Credit: Carson Kahoe

A team of student researchers discovered that many of the founding trustees of the University had substantial connections to the slave trade. 

Over a month after the research was unveiled, Penn President Amy Gutmann and Provost Wendell Pritchett announced on Jan. 23 that Penn would form "a working group to examine the role of slavery in Penn's early years."

“While it has long been known that Penn’s founder, Benjamin Franklin had owned slaves early in his life before becoming a leading abolitionist,” the statement read. “The student's work cast a new light on our historical understanding of the reach of slavery’s connections to Penn.”

As a part of the Penn History of Slavery Project, five undergraduate researchers worked closely with History professor Kathleen Brown throughout 2017 to investigate the University's past ties to the slave trade. By December 2017, the students had found that of the 28 founding University trustees they investigated (there were 126 founding trustees in total), 20 held slaves between 1769 and 1800 and had financial ties to the slave trade. 

"We have always acknowledged that our founder, Ben Franklin, owned slaves early in his life," University spokesperson Stephen MacCarthy wrote in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian. 

In 2016, after Georgetown University publicly acknowledged the university's own connection to the slave trade, Penn Director of Media Relations Ron Ozio told The Philadelphia Tribune that “Penn has explored this issue several times over the past few decades and found no direct University involvement with slavery or the slave trade."

"Our statements last year regarding any further University nexus were based on the best information that was then known to the University Archives. Through the student's research, we are now aware of additional information, and as the statement yesterday noted, we have established a high level working group to explore it further so that we might fully understand the affects of slavery on the early days of our University," MacCarthy wrote.

Photos from Penn Slavery Project

The undergraduate group did not find evidence proving that Penn, as an institution, owned slaves.  

Gutmann and Pritchett's statement indicated that after administrators met with the students, the University decided to form its own research group, chaired by Pritchett and including Senior Vice President for Institutional Affairs and Chief Diversity Officer Joann Mitchell, Law and Sociology Professor Dorothy Roberts, Africana Studies Professor Heather Williams, and Brown.  

The "broad contours" of the group's work could likely be finished this semester, the statement read, "to allow a fuller illumination of this part of Penn's history." 

The University's acknowledgement of the possible connection of its trustees to the slave trade comes a little over a year after Ozio made his statement, in which a Penn spokesperson explicitly denied the proposition. 

Penn is not the only Ivy League institution under scrutiny for its former ties to the slave trade. 

Two months before Gutmann’s statement, the Princeton & Slavery Project unveiled dozens of archival documents about Princeton's ties to slavery. 

Since its own public admission, Georgetown has taken steps to offer reparations for its past harms including the possibility of preferential admission for descendants of the enslaved people owned by the university and its leading Jesuits.

“Our intention is to seek the truth and acknowledge it, and to offer recommendations for any next steps,” Gutmann wrote in the statement. 

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