University owes Black community reparations

Students and Townhomes residents disrupt UPenn convocation Aug. 29, 2022. Credit: Joe Piette

Philadelphia

For weeks, students at the University of Pennsylvania have joined residents facing eviction from the University City Townhomes to demand the Ivy League university use some of its $20.7 billion endowment to save the low-income residents’ homes. UPenn, they point out, played an historic role in gentrifying the Black communities in West Philadelphia, once known as the Black Bottom, where UC Townhomes is located.

Nearly 70 families face eviction at the end of 2022, as the property owner, Altman Group, is ending a decades-long HUD contract. Altman plans to demolish the homes and sell the land to developers for $100 million.

Spokespersons for UPenn have loudly denied any link with the Townhomes or wrongdoing regarding gentrifying the Black Bottom, just as they have repeatedly denied any ties to enslavement — even as other Ivy League colleges have admitted their shameful histories.

But on Oct. 11, the Philadelphia Inquirer released a report titled “Indebted,” by Zoe Greenberg, that established direct historical links between the University of Pennsylvania and the slave trade. The report surfaced just days after the City of Philadelphia finally issued a formal apology for experiments conducted on mostly Black incarcerated people by a University of Pennsylvania researcher at Holmesburg Prison from the 1950s to the 1970s.

1899 UPenn trustees embraced slavery founding

Competing with other Ivy League colleges to stake claim to being the oldest U.S. university, in 1899 University of Pennsylvania trustees embraced Southern preacher and Georgia enslaver George Whitefield, whose followers owned a building in Philadelphia’s Old City. The trustees claimed the property as the original university campus established in 1740. Whitefield, who enslaved 29,000 people in Georgia, strongly advocated re-legalizing enslavement in all the original colonies.

And in 1919, UPenn unveiled a bronze statue of Whitefield. They only removed it a century later, in 2020, when the international Black Lives Matter movement was demanding the dismantling of monuments to white supremacy.

In 2018, Black UPenn student VanJessica Gladney and other students, organized as the Penn & Slavery Project, released reports on their investigation, which exposed the school’s connections to enslavement. While UPenn repeatedly claimed no “direct university involvement” with enslavers, the research done by the group disproved the story UPenn has painted. The university has not set aside money for restitution or even joined the large formal group Universities Studying Slavery.

The Penn & Slavery Project found historic tax records for UPenn trustees that dispute the innocence claims. The records show that over 75 of the university’s early trustees, including the first provost, enslaved people and reported them as “property.”

Financed by blood money

The students found direct evidence, including written letters from an enslaved man forced to work at the university in 1757. In 1771 the university founders sent their provost William Smith — equivalent to today’s university president — on a fundraising trip to South Carolina to drum up donations. Smith visited 100 of Charleston’s wealthiest people and raised $200,000 for the school. The single largest donor was Gabriel Manigault, who enslaved 300 people. After this successful fundraising trip, the trustees planned another trip to Jamaica in 1772. 

The students from the Penn & Slavery Project note UPenn continues to deny this strong evidence.

But there is more. Some of the earliest students at UPenn’s medical school dissected cadavers stolen from Black burial grounds in Philadelphia. The university was a primary champion of debunked racist theories in the early 19th century. 

The Morton Collection

From the 1830s through the 1840s, Philadelphia-based physician and anatomy lecturer Samuel G. Morton collected over 1,300 human skulls, which he used to promote white supremacy based on the size of the crania. When Morton died in 1851, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia purchased and expanded the collection, later moving it to the University of Penn Museum in 1966.

In 2019 the Penn & Slavery Project research found that the collection included enslaved people’s remains, further documenting the university’s connection to enslavement and scientific racism. In 2020, in the midst of student protests over the police murder of George Floyd, the university put the collection in “storage.” But it was not until April 2021 that the UPenn Museum formally apologized for “unethical possession” of human remains and announced plans to repatriate or for the reburial of more than 50 skulls belonging to enslaved people from Cuba and the U.S.

Inhumane experiments on Black prisoners 

The City of Philadelphia finally issued a formal apology Oct. 6 to Black men and their families for subjecting them to unethical medical experiments while they were incarcerated at the city’s Holmesburg Prison from the 1950s through the 1970s. Most were awaiting trial and could not afford money for bail.

Prison officials let University of Pennsylvania researcher Dr. Albert Kligman conducted dermatological, biochemical and pharmaceutical experiments on about 300 men, exposing them to viruses, fungus, asbestos, and chemical agents including dioxin — a carcinogenic component of the defoliant Agent Orange. (AP, Oct. 6)

Kligman was a long-standing faculty member in UPenn’s department of dermatology. Even after it was revealed that his experiments left many former prisoners with lifelong scars and health issues, UPenn continued to honor him with prestigious lectureships and travel awards. A 2000 lawsuit by several former prisoners against UPenn and Kligman was thrown out because of a statute of limitations. While the university established research funding for diversity in dermatologic research, it has paid no reparations to the men Kligman harmed or to their families.

University City ‘Penntrification’

On Aug. 29, several university students joined UC Townhomes residents in disrupting the convocation for incoming students, in order to shine a light on UPenn’s role as a major agent of gentrification in former Black communities, especially the Black Bottom. Much of the area has been repurposed for continued university expansion and renamed University City. 

As a nonprofit, UPenn pays no property taxes. Except for the years 1995-2000, it opted out of a voluntary payment program known as PILOTs that allows tax-exempt organizations to financially support local governments. Carrying a banner that read “Stop Penntrification,” the protesters shouted during UPenn President Liz Magill’s opening remarks to the convocation and demanded that the university use some of its $20.7 billion endowment to pay $62 million in PILOTs this year.

The students say UPenn has the money to help save UC Townhomes; however, the university instead chose to retaliate against nine students involved in the protest by threatening them with disciplinary hearings.

For decades UPenn has denied the evidence and refused to apologize for profiting off the labor of enslaved Africans. The billion-dollar Ivy League school continues to encroach into the surrounding predominantly Black working-class communities. 

The time for apologies is long over. Reparations are in order — and who better to benefit than the descendants of enslaved Africans, who made their way to Philadelphia’s Black Bottom community, many of whom now live in UC Townhomes.

Betsey Piette

Betsey.Piette@workers.org

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Betsey Piette

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