Student researchers in the Penn History of Slavery Project have expressed concerns about the decisions made by the faculty working group, created in January to investigate "the reach of slavery’s connections to Penn."
The Penn Slavery Project, formed in spring 2017, is a group of undergraduate students dedicated to researching Penn's founding trustees' ties to slavery and the slave trade. It is led by Penn History professor and Director of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies Kathleen Brown.
In December 2017, the group released a report which discovered that 20 of the 28 Penn trustees the group investigated held slaves and had ties to the slave trade, contradicting a previous University statement that Penn had "no direct University involvement with slavery or the slave trade."
On Jan. 23, 2018, Provost Wendell Pritchett officially recognized the Project and announced the creation of a collaborative faculty group to further investigate the matter.
“It is our expectation that the broad contours of the work could be completed this semester – at least sufficient to help us shape a set of next steps to allow a fuller illumination of this part of Penn’s history,” Pritchett wrote in the statement.
But this one-semester timeline for the faculty working group has prompted some questions among the undergraduate students in the Penn Slavery Project.
“It’s tempting to treat slavery like it’s in a vacuum, and if you were to do that then you could potentially say you could get everything done in a semester,” Penn Slavery Project member and College senior VanJessica Gladney said. “But I think every Penn kid knows that you have all these ideas to get things done in one semester, and it just doesn’t happen.”
Gladney added that she thinks the short time period reveals a tendency to treat slavery as an isolated event. She referenced the deep effects slavery has had on the educational system, the justice system, and socioeconomic disparity, as examples of the need to further investigate Penn’s ties to slavery.
“I think it’s going to take a little longer than one semester,” Gladney said.
College sophomore and fellow member of the Penn Slavery Project Dillon Kersh echoed Gladney’s concerns over the announced time frame.
“I personally don’t think the one semester time they put out in their statement is at all realistic,” Kersh said. “In one semester we just looked at trustees, and they’re full-time faculty and administrators; I don’t know how they are going to do all the statement expects them to do in one semester.”
Kersh added that although the Penn Slavery Project has been extremely transparent with the working group, it would be ideal to allow the original students to conduct the research.
“I think the formation of the faculty group shows the school is listening, however I think that the undergraduates should really be taking the lead on doing the research,” Kersh said. “We formed the project and we have more time to do the research. Since they are high level administrators, they don’t really have the time to devote to this project in the way the undergraduates do.”
However, students also expressed optimism over their initial interaction with the faculty working group on Jan. 12.
During this meeting, the undergraduate researches walked the Provost through their first semester findings, presented their individual research papers, and gave their suggestions for the school moving forward, Kersh said.
“I think coming out of the Provost meeting I felt very validated in my research," Kersh said. "I felt that they definitely supported our work, especially Provost Pritchett."
Provost Pritchett earned his Ph.D. in history at Penn and is a scholar of race relations, which Gladney said she appreciated.
“It is really cool to know that there are historians involved in the project,” Gladney said. “There are people who are involved that are actually interested in getting into the nitty gritty and treating this as a research project, and not a PR move.”
Professor Kathleen Brown, who heads the Penn Slavery Project, said the undergraduates continue to work hard in their research.
“We hope to have another presentation of findings at the end of the semester,” Brown said.