Staff Editorial: University fails to take action over historical ties to slavery
Two years after working group offered recommendations, little progress has been made
Editor's Note: This article appeared in The Eagle's March 2021 virtual print edition.
The summer of 2020 was marked by a fervent call for racial justice. Around the country and world, corporations, governments and educational institutions pledged to look within to dismantle systemic racism. American University, despite dedicating a working group to examine AU’s relationship with slavery, has dragged its feet on change.
The clearest manifestation of anti-Blackness on AU’s campus lies in the name “Hurst Hall.” The knowledge that AU founder John Fletcher Hurst owned enslaved people was a central theme in former Eagle Opinion Managing Editor Nickolaus Mack’s article, which inspired the formation of the working group. Two years after the group shared its findings, there has been little public discussion from the administration of any considerations to change the building’s name. Even as the country demanded change last summer, the University ignored the work it could have been doing on its own campus to meet the moment.
The majority of the Eagle Editorial Board is in favor of renaming Hurst Hall. Renaming, however, should just be the start of the work AU does in regards to its historical ties to slavery. Changing the name of the building is ineffective without other lasting actions that impress the University’s history upon the student body and wider AU community.
AU’s student body is well-known for its political and social engagement, yet there is little enduring organizing aimed at holding the University accountable for its past. This may be in part because many students are just not aware of AU’s past. It’s difficult to maintain institutional memory in the undergraduate student body when a quarter of it graduates every year and is replaced by a new wave of people. The University must take steps to educate the whole community on AU’s past and expand on that education over time as more research is done.
The University has already created a place where it can educate students about AU’s historical ties to slavery. AUx2 is intended to be a “space for conversations and learning about race, social identity, and structures of power.” Why haven’t discussions of AU’s own foundational history with race, social identity, and structures of power been ingrained in the curriculum in a meaningful way? Conversations about AU’s recent history are not enough. Learning about AU’s past should not be up to the discretion of individual AUx professors or the students themselves. If the University genuinely wants to reconcile with its past, it must make a real commitment to fulfill the potential of AUx and AUx2 by turning the investigation of these important themes inward.
AU’s unwillingness to implement change is disappointing. AU vice president of campus life and inclusive excellence Fanta Aw cited COVID-19 as a delay in carrying out recommendations put forth by the slavery working group. These recommendations were made in 2018, well before COVID-19 became the overwhelming focus of administration. There is no excuse for not taking concrete steps to build on the work done by the working group. There is also no excuse for not communicating adequately with the student body. Administration’s silence on this indicates an inability to do even the bare minimum.
It’s important to note that whatever progress has been made so far is entirely due to the insistence of a student to take a deeper look at the hypocrisy at the core of AU. In a recent interview with Eagle columnist Kayla Kelly reflecting on his work with the slavery working group, Mack said, “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.” Mack points out a glaring failure on the part of the University. The responsibility should not just be on students to investigate this further and constantly hold the University accountable. The University’s laziness in simply waiting for another student to get outraged and demand change is just not good enough.
There is more work to be done here. The Eagle Editorial Board supports creating a scholarship, along the same vein as the Frederick Douglass Distinguished Scholars program, for Black students in recognition of the University’s historical ties to slavery. AU should also conduct and publish further research on the history of AU’s founding and the enslaved person(s) its founder inherited before the manumission, or release, took place. Changing the name of Hurst Hall is just the beginning and is the least the University could do to start building on the work of the slavery working group. Currently, students and student-run organizations like The Eagle are the ones holding the University accountable for its past. If AU is truly the forward-thinking educator of changemakers it claims to be, it must take an active role in creating a framework of honesty and accountability.