Less than two years after a Penn spokesperson denied any direct involvement between Penn and the slave trade, Penn President Amy Gutmann penned a statement to the community this summer formally acknowledging that 75 of Penn's former trustees, including the University's first Provost William Penn, were slave owners.
Now, members of the Penn History of Slavery Project — the student group that unearthed the evidence that prompted Penn's latest investigation into the matter — say the research has only just begun.
“Now that we’re getting into the nitty gritty of the details and exploring things, we realize that there is a lot more conversation to be had,” member of the project and 2018 College graduate VanJessica Gladney said.
Supported by Penn's History Department, the group first formed in 2017 under the guidance of professor Kathleen Brown and began to call into question the University's steadfast claim that denied the possibility of any historic ties to slavery.
“Penn has explored this issue several times over the past few decades and found no direct University involvement with slavery or the slave trade,” Ron Ozio, a University spokesman, notably told the Philadelphia Tribune in September 2016. This denial came shortly after Georgetown University openly acknowledged its ties to the slave trade and many other institutions of higher learning began to explore the issue.
After learning about the student group's findings, Gutmann and Penn Provost Wendell Pritchett announced the formation of a working group of faculty "to examine the role of slavery in Penn's early years." The collection included 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.
On June 28, Gutmann released a statement referring to the findings of both the student researchers and the working group recognizing the role of slavery in the University's past.
"[Slavery] was a profoundly painful and odious part of our nation's history," she wrote. "No segment of American society or institution founded during the 18th Century, including the University of Pennsylvania, escaped its scourge. Far from it."
Gutmann continued on to thank the faculty group, expressed pride on behalf of the students involved, and committed Penn to five goals in the future, including the support of future research, the development of a website as a database for information on the findings, the joining of the Universities Studying Slavery consortium, and the encouragement of schools and departments to inform the community about the institution's ties to slavery in the past.
After reading the statement, College junior Dillon Kersh said he was glad to see Penn acknowledging the group's research.
“The school is really listening to us," said Kersh, also a member of the student research group. "They're not brushing off and ignoring us."
In an email sent on Aug. 16, Leah Popowich, a spokesperson for Gutmann, wrote that the president did not have “anything additional to add to the statement at this time.”
Moving forward, Gladney said she and other members of the student group will continue to assist PSP in its ongoing research this semester, largely through the seminar, HIST 273, which will meet on Fridays from 8:00 a.m. to 11 a.m. each week.
Gladney encourages interested students to get involved with the research by registering for the history course this semester.
“We are interested in getting this conversation really started and getting as many people involved,” Gladney said.
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