American University will convene a small working group of faculty, staff, an alumnus and an undergraduate student to research AU’s historical ties to slavery, the University announced Wednesday.
Vice President of Campus Life and Inclusive Excellence Fanta Aw decided to establish the group of eight after junior Nickolaus Mack, the opinion editor for The Eagle, wrote an op-ed article claiming that AU’s first president, John Hurst, had ties to slavery.
Mack’s research indicated that Hurst inherited slaves from his father. This led Mack to declare that AU’s annual Founder’s Day, which celebrated the 125th anniversary of the University this spring, “is a largely dishonest celebration and antithetical to values of the University and the United Methodist Church.”
Aw said that prior to Mack’s article, the question of AU’s ties to slavery had not yet been presented to her. She began to imagine who could potentially make up the small working group, including the university chaplain, a member of AU’s Antiracist Research & Policy Center and a professor with expertise in the field, after meeting with Mack to discuss his article.
“From my perspective, the way to go about this, like with anything that is research-based, you get people with expertise who can lend their expertise to the question at hand,” Aw said in an interview.
The group’s members include Christine Platt, the managing director of the Antiracist Research & Policy Center, and Sybil Roberts, the incoming director of the African-American and African Diaspora Studies program. University chaplain Mark Schaefer, associate university archivist Leslie Nellis, history professor Malgorzata J. Rymsza-Pawlowska, and Bette Dickerson, a former sociology professor and interim assistant vice president of campus life, have also been named to the group.
Mack and David Aldridge, an AU alum, reporter for Turner Television Networks and a member of The Eagle’s advisory board, round out the committee.
A university press release said the group will meet for the first time in April and release findings and recommendations with the AU community no later than September. Aw said the working group’s recommendations, which will be delivered to her, will determine what future steps of action the University will take in response to the findings.
Mack told The Eagle that in addition to the working group, he would like “the slave residents who lived here on the actual land and the slaves that were owned by the University’s first president” to be commemorated on a monument, memorial or plaque placed on campus.
Although Aw was responsive to Mack’s article, she was also critical of his methods and delivery.
“I think there are gaps in the research, but that’s not surprising,” Aw told The Eagle. “I think any one of us who would be doing research, if this is not our primary area of research, you pull together what you have, but you really do need to get people with expertise.”
Aw added that it is important for people to remember that AU was founded in the post-slavery era, in 1893. But Mack said he had “always suspected” that the University’s history had ties to slavery because “the Washington, D.C. area, historically, was predominately African American” in the post-slavery era. The D.C. Compensated Emancipation Act, which became law in 1862, freed slaves in the District of Columbia, according to the U.S. Senate’s website.
Mack said he is grateful for Aw’s support and her interest in his research.
“[She] does great work and she is a very important community member,” Mack said. “I would [also] like to see the effort for inclusion come from more than just African-American staff and faculty.”
Editor's note: Nickolaus Mack is the opinion editor for The Eagle. He did not influence the reporting, writing or editing of this article.