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In 2016, a University spokesperson told The Philadelphia Tribune that Penn had “no direct university involvement with slavery or the slave trade.”

A year later, that claim came crashing down. 

A group of student researchers — who formed as the Penn & Slavery Project in fall 2017 — found that at least 20 of the University’s 126 founding trustees had owned slaves between 1769 and 1800, and were financially linked with the African slave trade. By May 2018, then-Penn President Amy Gutmann had acknowledged that, among other historical facts, at least 75 of Penn’s earliest trustees owned slaves, and that Penn Medicine played a key role in developing prominent theories of “racial pseudoscience.” 

More than five years later, the Penn & Slavery Project is still relatively unknown among Penn students. As universities such as Harvard University and Georgetown University make headlines for their institutional commitment to acknowledging their complicity in slavery, Penn has remained relatively silent — even as the University faces controversy over other issues of racial justice on campus. 

Multiple people affiliated with the Penn & Slavery Project spoke with The Daily Pennsylvanian to detail the project's findings and their attempts to gain wider visibility on campus. They described progress while claiming that University administration has been slow or hesitant to integrate P&SP's findings into New Student Orientation, create an official website, and take other action steps to address its history with slavery.

The Penn & Slavery Project's background

In the fall of 2017, a group of five Penn students — under the guidance of history professor Kathleen Brown — began conducting archival research into the University’s history with slavery and the slave trade, culminating in a presentation of their findings at the end of the semester. They found that multiple early University trustees, including William Smith, the first University provost, had owned slaves. 

The project soon turned into its own course taught by Brown, now known as AFRC/HIST 3173: “Penn Slavery Project Research Seminar.” In subsequent semesters, students have researched topics such as Penn Med’s role in the development of early ideas of medical racism and the origins of skulls in the Morton Cranial Collections held by the Penn Museum. 

One of the P&SP’s flagship initiatives is its augmented reality app, which contains a virtual tour of campus with six stops that visually contextualize Penn’s history with slavery. 

“People are kind of amazed by it, especially when they realize undergraduates did the research and undergraduates really imagined and designed the whole thing,” Brown told the DP. 

Fifth-year history graduate student VanJessica Gladney — who was one of the original researchers on the project and now serves as a public historian for the P&SP — said that Penn’s student-led project is a “unique” approach that differs from similar initiatives at other universities. 

Credit: Ha Tran A group of Penn undergraduates founded the Penn & Slavery Project in spring 2017.

Publicity efforts

Members of the P&SP have worked for years to expand its reach both on and off of campus. 

Fifth-year history graduate student Breanna Moore — who joined the project in spring 2018 — cited the app, on-campus panels, numerous public tours, and the website as methods of publicizing the Penn & Slavery Project. 

“We've really just tried our best to let the public know about the existence of the project, and also trying to hopefully open more opportunities for the findings to spread, as well as awareness and people being able to know about and engage with it,” Moore said. 

In June 2023, the program worked with the Wharton Global Youth Leadership in the Business World Program — a summer program for rising high school seniors offered through the Wharton School — to take the augmented reality app tour on Juneteenth. School of Social Policy & Practice professor Amy Hillier organized the tour, which reached over 300 participants, according to Brown. 

Wharton Summer High School Programs Manager Allyson Ronayne, a student at the Graduate School of Education, said she first learned about the Penn & Slavery Project through her classes at GSE. 

In a statement to the DP, Ronayne wrote that the LBW program “wanted to implement a day of learning for Juneteenth,” since a majority of participants were not aware of the holiday nor Penn’s history with slavery — yet Hillier said that there was “limited interest” in doing so, since the high school participants were not “deeply invested” in the University.

“I think it's a thing where even if they're not overtly interested in the tour, what sticks with them afterwards, that's most important,” College junior Jenna Boccher — who helped lead tours for the LBW program and became involved with the Penn & Slavery Project starting her first year — said.

Multiple people who spoke with the DP emphasized their efforts to get the P&SP and its findings integrated into New Student Orientation.

2021 College graduate Carson Eckhard, who joined the Penn & Slavery Project as a first year in the spring of 2018, said it was crucial to incorporate these conversations about Penn's history into how students learn about the University early on.

Brown also said that she requested funding to update the project’s website, establish a “centralized physical space on campus” for information about the tour, facilitate training for tour guides, and create QR code markers around campus to link to the tour’s information — requests that have gone unanswered.

“We’ve asked for very modest requests, I think,” Brown said. 

Administrative ‘reluctance’  

While Penn has publicly acknowledged the project and joined the Universities Studying Slavery consortium, it has lagged behind its peer institutions in terms of addressing its history with slavery. 

In her original May 2018 statement acknowledging Penn’s ties to slavery, Gutmann committed to multiple short-term goals — including supporting the P&SP, developing a University website dedicated to consolidating information, and joining the USS. 

To date, no official Penn website has been created to address the University’s history with slavery, while universities such as Harvard and Yale have. Penn joined the USS in September 2023, more than five years since Gutmann’s original commitment and over a year after she officially left her position as Penn president. 

Many expressed frustration at the University’s comparative lack of attention to the subject. 

Penn Ph.D. graduate Paul Wolff Mitchell, who originally joined the project in 2019 as a research fellow, described it as “a demonstrated record of nontransparency and an unwillingness to face these histories.” 

“Penn has a uniquely well-organized project through the Penn & Slavery Project to document and research the University's complicity with slavery,” Mitchell said. “But even though we’re exemplary with regards to the structure of this project … the University of Pennsylvania is among the worst with regards to publicizing the findings.” 

In response to multiple requests for comment, a University spokesperson directed the DP to the Provost’s Office. 

"There's just a reluctance," Gladney said.

Moore said that a writer for University Communications had interviewed multiple members of the Penn & Slavery Project — including herself, Gladney, and Brown — as part of an article about the project and its findings. 

In an email obtained by the DP, the writer — current Penn Today Managing Editor Greg Johnson — communicated that the article, which was intended to be a long feature more than 5,000 words long, was delayed multiple times in 2018. The piece was never published.

Johnson did not respond to a request for comment. While Penn Today has written about the project since then, no article matching the description of the 2018 story has been published. 

Brown said that faculty — specifically the History Department — has offered more support than members of Penn’s administration. In a statement to the DP, History Department Chair Sophia Rosenfeld wrote that the department was “delighted to be affiliated” with the project. 

Makuu: The Black Cultural Center Director Brian Peterson wrote in a statement to the DP that he appreciated the project’s student-driven nature. 

“Makuu has promoted and attended various events and presentations, informed students about the course and research opportunities, and even had the pleasure of having one of our workstudy students also be a part of the Penn and Slavery Project team,” Peterson wrote. 

Both Gladney and Brown said that their efforts to include the P&SP in NSO programming faced pushback from the University — with the excuse that “‘Penn is very decentralized,’” according to Gladney. 

“The true part of it is there's not one centralized, powerful administrative authority at Penn that just makes things happen,” Brown said. “But it can also be an excuse for why things don't happen.” 

In contrast, Brown said that former Provost Wendell Pritchett provided “crucial support” during his tenure. The Provost’s Office contributed financial support for the app and named two fellows to the program.

“I am very proud of the support that the Provost’s Office provided and continues to provide to the essential work of the Penn & Slavery Project,” Pritchett wrote in a statement to the DP. “This project has immeasurably advanced our understanding of our history at Penn — and the wider history of slavery in America.” 

In response to a request for comment, Associate Provost for Communications Leo Charney wrote that the Provost’s Office under John Jackson Jr. “absolutely still continues to support” the project.  

Despite this, Brown said that she has received no response to the request for funding she submitted to Jackson’s office in summer 2023.

What’s next? 

The University has never retracted its statements about Penn’s involvement with slavery, nor has it formally issued an apology. 

“Penn has a commitment to tell a true story about itself,” Mitchell said. “And the fact that Penn has made public statements at the highest level absolving itself — or attempting to absolve itself — from any complicity with slavery, to me, that suggests now an obligation to tell a clearer, more honest story.” 

Gladney said that the Penn & Slavery Project should have greater recognition — especially from the University — for its work. 

“I personally think that there is a large opportunity being missed by the University for not recognizing and celebrating the efforts and research that is conducted at their own institutions,” Gladney said. 

Mitchell said Penn has a “real problem” in its response to its history of racial injustice. 

“I see the University of Pennsylvania always being reactive rather than proactive in addressing these histories, in talking about these histories, or in finding ways to redress these histories,” he said. 

Multiple people who spoke with the DP said that the University should commit financially to redressing its history with slavery and racial injustice beyond simple recognition of the P&SP and aspects of its work. They proposed the construction of a physical center — such as Brown University’s Ruth J. Simmons Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice — as a way to do this. 

Hillier said that discussions about financial commitments from Penn “absolutely” included reparations. In recent years, universities such as Harvard and Georgetown have committed large sums of money to redress their historical ties to slavery. 

However, Peterson expressed uncertainty as to how the University can better acknowledge its history with slavery and race science, saying that restorative justice initiatives are “new territory for institutions like Penn.” 

Regardless, Mitchell said that one conclusion is clear, based on the University's treatment of the project — Penn has a long way to go in terms of reckoning with its historical complicity in slavery.

“It tells me that they are indeed either dangerously ignorant of these histories, or intent on silencing them,” he said.