University of Pennsylvania Research Uncovers Its Early Ties to Slavery

This past fall, undergraduate students involved in the Penn Slavery Project conducted research that discovered that the university’s ties to slavery were more extensive than had been previously known. As a result, Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, and Wendell Pritchett, the university’s provost, announced the formation of a Working Group that was charged to further investigate the university’s ties to slavery.

At that time, President Gutmann and Provost Pritchett wrote that “the institution of slavery is a profoundly shameful and deeply tragic part of American history. It is important that we fully understand how it affected our university in its early years and that we reflect as a university about the current meaning of this history. Our intention is to seek the truth and acknowledge it, and to offer recommendations for any next steps.”

University founder, Benjamin Franklin was a slave owner early in his life but then became an abolitionist. Research has shown that no fewer than 75 of the university’s early trustees owned at least one enslaved person. The labor of enslaved people was used to support and care for Penn faculty and students. Researchers also produced evidence that the medical school’s faculty played pivotal roles in the development of racial pseudoscience.

The Working Group recently offered recommendations on how to proceed and President Gutmann has accepted those suggestions. The university will support ongoing research of the Penn Slavery Project as well as research on the impact of the School of Medicine’s pedagogy, research, and medical practices on alumni and its lingering effects on medicine. Penn will develop a website to serve as a portal for a repository of research findings and other information, and join the Universities Studying Slavery consortium. In collaboration with schools and departments, Penn will offer educational and cultural programming that will inform the university community about its past and foster opportunities for learning on campus and beyond.

In accepting the Working Group’s recommendations, President Gutmann issued a statement that read in part: “Penn will continue to work to learn still more about its past, disseminate our findings, grapple with the implications for our present, and work to secure an ever more inclusive future. The power of knowledge advances our common good; it enables us to be stronger and wiser; and it is essential to our moving forward together.”

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  1. Jah and Jahnes love JBHE.

    Thank you very much for this short article about UPenn’s ties to Slavery. I am an alumni and I believe that I was a victim of the pseudocience or medical practices of some the Doctors at the Penn Hospital. I feel that the Doctors could have done more to help me when I was sick. And I am very happy that this is being linked to Penn’s ties with the Enslavement of Africans in the U.S. I am excited to read the report and to see what the Working Group recommends. Blessed love.

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