The University of Minnesota’s Historical Ties to Slavery

It may come as a surprise to many readers, but another university that is examining its historical ties to slavery is the University of Minnesota.

In 1856, the university was struggling financially and received a loan of nearly $15,000 from William Aiken Jr., who at one time owned more than 700 slaves in South Carolina. This money helped build one of the first campus buildings, Old Main. The university repaid about half of the loan in 1857, but the rest was still owed when the Civil War broke out in 1861. The Rebellion Act passed by the Legislature in 1862 made it impossible for Aiken to retrieve the rest of his money.

In addition to the Aiken loan, Henry Sibley, who secured the university’s land grant from the federal government in 1851, worked for a company owned by slaveholders. John Nicols owned slaves before serving on the board of regents in 1863.

Christopher Lehman, chair of the department of ethnic and women’s studies at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota and author of the book Slavery’s Reach: Southern Slaveholders in the North Star State (Minnesota Historical Society, 2019), said that “at the very least, the university can make public acknowledgment of its debt to enslaved labor. The university should present this relationship as a fundamental and essential part of the university’s history.”

Professor Lehman joined the faculty at St. Cloud State University in 2002. He is a graduate of Oklahoma State University, where he majored in history. Dr. Lehman holds a master’s degree in history and a Ph.D. in African American studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.


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