Opinion: Q&A with Nickolaus Mack, a former opinion editor who catalyzed influence of slavery working group
Mack talks University’s slavery ties, research process and what’s left to discuss in racial conversations
Editor’s note: Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and conciseness.
On Jan. 22, 2018, American University announced that it would hold its annual Founders Day celebration at the National Museum of African American History and Culture to celebrate the 125th anniversary of AU’s founding in 1893. In response to this news, Nickolaus Mack, a former opinion managing editor for The Eagle, published a column about Founders Day being a celebration of a slave owner and characterization of racism. The column led to the creation of a University group that studies the University’s ties to slavery. Within his column, Mack presented research findings that indicated that John Fletcher Hurst, AU’s founding chancellor, inherited slaves from his father, concluding that AU’s annual Founders Day celebration “is a largely dishonest celebration and antithetical to the values of the University and the United Methodist Church.” The Working Group on the Influence of Slavery, which included Mack, Vice President of Campus Life and Inclusive Excellence Fanta Aw and a few other AU community members, released its findings a year later on the University’s connections to slavery and recommendations on how AU can address this history on campus.
I reached out to Mack to reflect on his experience as an undergraduate student researching AU’s undiscovered history and how the conversations surrounding these findings affected his own perspective.
Kayla Kelly: What made you compelled to write your 2018 op-ed on Founders Day being a celebration of a slave owner?
Nickolaus Mack: So I guess a bit of context with the op-ed is that it originally related to Founders Ball, which, as you know, is an annual event that may not happen this year as of now.
Kelly: The event is going to be virtual this year.
Mack: It’s going to be virtual? That’ll be interesting. Well, anyway, AU at the time decided to have it at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. When I heard about that, having been to that museum multiple times on various occasions for various events, my own personal experience with the museum was more of a place of reflection and learning and not a place of celebration, whereas, a museum like my first year, I want to say, was the [National] Portrait Gallery, is a whole different venue for a whole different experience and purpose. And so going through that museum, it starts at the bottom floor and you go up and you're kind of going through history and it's time for learning. Now, I know the museum serves as a venue for a multitude of experiences, it serves for a multitude of events. In my view, a lot of those events have a learning perspective to them or a learning purpose, or relate in some way to the African American history experience. Founders Day Ball relates to none of that. It's purely a celebration, which traditionally, in the student experience, has some level of intoxication, whether or not alcohol is sold on or off the premises and intoxication, alcohol, and drugs and whatnot. That just provides some of the context for the reason why I thought that having the Founders Day Ball there was a bad decision.
Kelly: How did your peers and the AU community respond? Did people’s responses surprise you?
Mack: So the initial reaction among some of the student body, particularly those that were involved in the Founders Day planning committee, was not great. Yeah, I know that they put a lot of work into it and planning and the logistics and securing the contract and it's a big budget for those events, for that event in particular. From them, it wasn't well received. I feel personally that it was both a positive and draining experience for me because it allowed me to implement the research skills that I was learning in classes towards my own personal project. And I think that's always a positive thing where you get that parental experience to actually do the work rather than just learn to read about it. I think a common theme among American University students who may be or have been outspoken in recent history is that they leave the University feeling a bit drained. And that has not been so great just due to some of the comments and things I’ve experienced before my graduation. I was told personally that maybe I wasn't fit for university, like getting an undergraduate degree, for instance. … I had my name essentially blacklisted from the Founders Day Ball that year and was told that if I was there, they’d look out for me and to confront me. I received hate mail in my email, people telling me to go jump off a bridge, and things that I don't think any student at that age should be going through, and there was no effort on the University administration to shade or protect from that.
But it spurred me to look into more of the history of American University and what exactly was the Founders Day Ball. What is the history of the University like? What founding are we celebrating? That led me down a deep rabbit hole of looking into who John Fletcher Hurst was. What was the land that the University existed on? What was it used for before? What was the history of it? As soon as we started to have those racial conversations with administration, the discussion or the purpose of the event suddenly started shifting and started turning to Founders Day for the founders instead of for John Hurst —I hope that’s a conversation that can still be had for future students and whatnot. In my own personal view, the founding of the University isn't as inclusive or an inclusive celebration to be had.
Editor’s note: AU spokesperson Lisa Stark wrote to The Eagle, “Any American University student who feels discriminated against or threatened is urged to file a complaint with the university. … If a student does not file a complaint, the university is unable to investigate or take action with regard to the concern or issue.”
Kelly: What was the researching process like for the slavery working group and were there any constraints or difficulties you’ve encountered?
Mack: My initial research started with just desk research, like looking on the internet and going into googling John Fletcher Hurst and going down the rabbit hole, but I wasn't getting all the information that I needed just from Google because a lot of it just didn't exist. It hadn't been digitized. I know AU keeps a good deal of its archives as well online, and those provided some opportunity as well for piecing bits and pieces together to create a clearer picture there.
When you Google, there is no document that's like, “OK, American University was founded by John Fletcher and his history is X, Y and Z, and he was a slave owner” and so on. So there's no document that exists, it’s really just picking pieces from slavery and chattel records going as far back as into land records to who owned the land before American University. As for my experience with the working group, a lot of that research has been transitioned over to being performed by the University archive, and the archivist there did a fantastic job of looking at the issue that kind of impeded our work. One issue in particular is that some records didn't exist for tracking down what I would have liked, such as the personal information of the enslaved people that worked or lived on the land before the University was created.
And finding more personal information on the personal lives of enslaved people that were owned by John Fletcher Hurst, a lot of those records were apparently stored in some courthouse that was destroyed by fire. A lot of that information, just like a lot of information from the time, was even destroyed, mysteriously disappeared. They just no longer exist, at least in the digital space, so that limitation itself impeded a lot of work to go further. However, I still think there is a lot of opportunity for students that are interested to conduct further research on their own. And I think there's a willingness among, at the very least, the University archive to help you with that work.
Kelly: What’s one thing you discovered about the University’s slavery ties that surprised you?
Mack: What's so interesting, I think, about the topic of slavery is that there are specific bodies of literature, as they relate to those individual experiences and those individual people, that become diluted. The opportunity to piece together that initial body of literature around specifically the area of American University in that plot of land was fascinating. I think to me, it's just piecing together information from a variety of sources and areas to build a bigger picture. And I think that can lend itself to discovering other stories and digging deeper at that individual experience of the people that lived here or worked on this land and those who were enslaved by the founder and illuminating those experiences, I think there's a great opportunity there. And I think that's what interests me. So, again, just those individual data points and the opportunity to bring them together.
Kelly: What would you like to have seen done differently during that process?
Mack: I would have tried to find a way to engage more members of the community in the work, because a lot of the things that happen at universities and American University in particular is that when a student graduates, that work kind of ends right there. If there's no one being vocal about it, there are a million other little things that the University has turned to or prioritizes, if you will. It's kind of a disheartening feeling to know that it feels like after my graduation it kind of stopped and I think the primary responsibility, as cliche as it can sound, is on other students to pick up that work.
Kayla Kelly is a freshman in the School of Public Affairs and an opinion staff columnist for The Eagle.