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Slavery at Columbian College

Columbian College existed in a city where human slavery was legal for over forty years prior to emancipation. Although there is no indication that the college itself ever owned slaves, from the beginning of the college, important leaders and financiers were slave owners and profited from the slave economy. The records also reveal that enslaved people had an almost constant presence on campus working as servants or laborers. Some of these enslaved men and women lived with presidents and stewards on campus while the college hired the labor of others from their masters. In the pre-emancipation era at least two out of five college presidents (Stephen Chapin and Joel Smith Bacon) owned slaves while leading Columbian.

As with the presidents, slave ownership among board of trustee members varied. The board of trustees were the leaders of the college, in charge of its finances, staff, faculty, and ultimately the college’ academic mission. The board also consisted of most of the important financiers of the college. Research into the board of trustee members reveals some of the ways the profits of slave- labor and the owning of enslaved people helped finance the university as well as the beliefs and practices of board members regarding slavery. Out of 95 board of trustee members researched at least 51 of them likely owned slaves at one time or another. A few of the Baptist board of trustee members in slave-owning states (the college was founded and controlled at this time by Baptists), such as Iveson Brooks and Robert Fuller, not only owned slaves but authored influential theological tracts in defense of slavery.

If looking into the board members gives us a view of slavery from the perspective of the leaders at Columbian College, research into the stewards and financial documents from the period begin to give us a picture of the experience of slavery and enslaved people on the actual campus. Stewards were in charge of room and board and lived on campus with their servants. For most of the period under review, stewards collectedfees from the students, covered expenses for housing, dining, and servants, and then the remaining profit was their compensation. This arrangement provided incentive for the stewards to keep costs low, and one easy way to do this was to use their own slaves as servants and laborers.

Although the record is far less complete at this time for stewards than it is for the presidents and board member, we know of at least four stewards who most likely owned slaves, and it is probable that more stewards did. The enslaved people that stewards brought to live on campus would have worked as servants (that was their official title) who cleaned and did laundry for the students, prepared meals, and maintained the upkeep of the college building and lawn. We know that enslaved people worked alongside white workers (native and immigrant) and possibly free African Americans. By the mid-1850s, it appears the use of enslaved people as servants declined (as the population of enslaved people in the city declined), replaced for the most part by Irish immigrants.

Enslaved men and women who worked on campus were not necessarily owned by the stewards or other employees of the college. Bonded labor in Washington, DC, came in many forms. It was common practice in the city for slave owners to hire out their slaves or for enslaved people to be allowed to find their own work. We have discovered at least one occasion in 1827 where the college paid George Wood, a federal clerk who would later become a board of trustee member, $17.50 for “the services of a colored man hired of him by the steward.” It is also likely that the many contractors that the college paid for construction and other services on campus would have used enslaved people for labor.

When Columbian College was founded in 1821, the Baptist church and Congress hoped that it would be a national university. But Columbian College quickly got the reputation as a southern institution. There were students from northern states, but the largest contingent of students came from Virginia, then D.C, and to a lesser extent from other southern states on the eastern seaboard. Unlike Georgetown University there are no records of students at Columbian College bringing enslaved people to campus. But the students had opinions about slavery and often freely shared them. In student publications from the time, one common target was abolitionists who the students argued threatened both slavery and national unity. There were also examples found in the pages of these student newsletters of outright support for slavery and by the 1850s, as the sectional crisis advanced, the southern cause.

There were also examples of opposition to slavery among the students. The most well-known was Henry J. Arnold, who in 1847 was removed from the school for assisting  two men, John R. Smith and a man known only as Abram, who were owned by the college steward. While a student at Columbian, Arnold provided Abram with a letter intended for an attorney and $14 so that he could file a lawsuit to potentially win his freedom in court. For this, he was immediately removed from the student body and the campus by the faculty, an action later approved by the trustees.

Although additional work remains to be done, initial research into Columbian College clearly shows that the practice of slavery influenced the school from the president down to enslaved servants. The college was located in a slave-owning city, financed and led by slave owners and men who profited from the slave economy, educated pro-slavery students, and depended on the labor of enslaved people.

For additional information about recent research on slavery in the GW archives, see Seth LaShier's write up of his findings while working on the President's Archival Research Project.

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