Tulane's regrettable past
CHERYL MEI-TING SCHMITZ*
New Orleans, LA February 25, 2005
Ironically, though, our great country was built, not on a foundation of liberty for all, but on the backs of African and African-American slaves. Indeed, key figures in the history of Tulane University were direct beneficiaries of the slave economy. Still, Tulane, along with many other colleges and universities, has failed to thoroughly examine the financial or nonmaterial debt it may owe to thousands of African-Americans who suffered under slavery and its aftermath.
If Tulane University wishes to call itself an exemplary educational institution in the South, the administration must not only support an honest, open examination of Tulane's history, but also consider how to recompense for past injustices. Tulane University would never have existed were it not for the 19th-century philanthropist Paul Tulane's connections to slavery. Such links date back at least to Paul Tulane's father, Louis, who made his fortune employing slave labor in Haiti. When a violent slave rebellion forced Louis to leave Saint Domingue and move to New Jersey, he had already amassed enough capital to purchase a massive estate near Princeton. Thus, when young Paul Tulane moved to New Orleans in 1822, he had the advantage of a cushion of financial support directly linked to slavery.
The Tulane family was not alone in profiting from slavery. When, in 1881, Paul Tulane decided to donate a generous amount of his wealth to endow the first university in New Orleans, he consulted with Representative Randall Lee Gibson, who put the grant into effect.
Gibson, who is memorialized through the impressive administrative building facing St. Charles Avenue, had been raised on his father's slave-operated sugar plantation in Lafourche Parish. When the Civil War broke out, he immediately volunteered to serve for the Confederacy, fervently defending the institution of slavery and eventually earning the status of brigadier general.
The wealth Gibson inherited from his father's involvement in the profitable sugar industry, along with his military service, contributed to his election to Congress and his ability to administer the Tulane trust.
These and other shameful, but significant elements of Tulane's history must be revealed and acted upon in order for the university to live up to its claim as an exemplary institution of higher learning. The administration might look to the example of one Ivy League institution that recently made serious attempts to come to terms with its historical connection to the slave trade.
In 2003, Brown University established the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice to inquire into the historical connections between slavery and the slave trade and many institutions of higher learning, as well as the complexity of current questions and debates surrounding slavery reparations. That the Tulane family profited from direct exploitation of African slave labor should compel all individuals connected to the university to support the establishment of such a committee at Tulane. In addition to researching and educating the Tulane community regarding the university's role in slavery and institutional racism, a potential committee on slavery would have to broach the subject of reparations, both in terms of the university and with regard to the nation as a whole.
One of the major roles of the committee would also be to address Tulane's relationship to the city in which it is located. African Americans make up around 70 percent of the city's population but only 5 percent of our student body. What kind of a message do these demographics, combined with the knowledge that Tulane's major historical players were slaveholders and segregationists, send to the black New Orleans community?
In 1882, upon the foundation of what was to become Tulane University, Paul Tulane stated that his financial gift was to be used "for the promotion and encouragement of intellectual, moral and industrial education among the white young persons in the City of New Orleans."
Surely, the current administrators of Tulane University do not intend to continue this kind of overt racial exclusivity today. Therefore, establishing meaningful ties to New Orleans' black residents many of whom form Tulane's under-appreciated, under-paid labor force, without which the university would cease to function must be part of any genuine attempt to reexamine Tulane's historical role in slavery and its legacies.
The necessary rethinking of Tulane's past might uncover unpleasant facts about the university. Nonetheless, a critical examination would not diminish Tulane's reputation; rather, it would uplift Tulane as a model for other respected educational institutions to follow. This is especially important considering Tulane is a Southern university. At the very least, the students, faculty and staff of Tulane should be able to walk confidently through Gibson Hall, proud that their school has acknowledged its connection to the brutal exploitation of blacks and that it is working to rectify the legacy of a problematic history.
Copyright 2005, The Hullabaloo Online
*Cheryl Mei-ting Schmitz is a contribuiting writer to the Tulane Hullabaloo and a member of Students Organized Against Racism (SOAR), which hosted a campus tour of slavery and segregation on March 2, 2005. She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her article first appeared in Tulane Hullabaloo, Vol. 95, No. 25, April 29, 2005 and is reprinted in accordance with the "fair use" provision of Title 17 U.S.C. § 107 for a non-profit educational purpose.