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Veritas: Universities of Slavery in the American Landscape (Academic Essay)

Veritas: Universities of Slavery in the American Landscape

  1. Introduction

The American landscape is closely intertwined with America's bloodied history with chattel slavery. However, this paper does not limit the scope of slavery to merely the agricultural plantations in the American antebellum south. The effects of slavery, in both its human exploitation as well as economic remuneration to its benefactors, have a resounding impact on the literal physical landscape of the U.S, especially in its elite universities—miles away from the slavery trading ports of southern cities such as Charleston, South Carolina. This paper will first begin by addressing the question of what defines a landscape of slavery in the U.S, as well as provide examples of such physical landscapes that can still be seen today. Such sites would stem from more historically renowned landscapes with direct connections to the transatlantic slave trade to the more nuanced university landscapes built more indirectly upon slavery (such as built through donations raised from the profits of infamous slave owners). In brief, although American universities hold a tremendous amount of wealth and prestige in the modern world, the landscapes on which these educational institutions are built upon are; unfortunately, modern relics of landscapes of slavery, fueled through an internalized system of historical human exploitation.

  1. Defining Landscapes of Slavery in the U.S

A landscape of slavery in this paper is defined as a system of human exploitation, mainly chattel slavery, that benefits its benefactors in the wealth that provides either the foundational labor and/or the financial resources to build a physical landscape. But why is it essential to recognize physical landscapes as landscapes of slavery? In "Representation" (2008) John Dixon Hunt writes that:

A ubiquitous feature of garden-making in all cultures has been the inclusion of references within the site to other places, events, and themes. I shall call this re-presentation, the presentation over again in garden terms of a whole range of other cultural and natural elements and occurrences. (p. 76)

In other words, the representation of history and culture is integral to landscape design and landscape architecture. The means of presentation in landscape goes beyond what is visually available for immediate enjoyment but must hold a deeper cognizance of the environment. And in the case of this paper, that would be slavery. In “White and Black Landscapes in Eighteenth-Century Virginia” (1985), Dell Upton writes that:

For me, one of the most engaging problems in architectural history is to understand the social experience of architecture.' To the extent that such an effort is possible, it requires us to account for the entire range of spatial divisions from the scale of furnishings to that of settlement patterns. An individual's perception of a landscape changes with the experience of moving through it. It is less obvious but equally true that an apparently unified landscape may actually be composed of several fragmentary ones, some sharing common elements of the larger assemblage. (p.122)

In this instance, Upton stresses the critical aspect of re-assessing the landscape as physical remnants of a larger story rather than just a space in itself. Therefore, to have a thorough representation showcased through the landscape, historians and designers must first reference and acknowledge the true and deeply interweaved history of slavery that needs to be presented.

III. Physical Landscapes of Slavery, the University

There are many examples of such physical landscapes that can still be viably seen in the U.S today. To that purview, there are different nodes of landscapes of slavery. A more well-known example would be landscapes with direct connections to the transatlantic slave trade, such as sites where slaves, reaped, sowed, lived, and literally built the designed landscape. However, not all landscapes of slavery are as apparent and conspicuous to the visible eye and the American memory, specifically speaking - the American university. The University of Virginia is a prime example of a landscape of slavery that can also be sardonically known as historical grounds for vital education.

In the early years of UVA’s founding history, and not solely from the fact that its founding father, Thomas Jefferson was a well-known slave owner, slaves toiled both within the university grounds and were integral to the literal building and design of the University of Virginia. As written by Blain Roberts & Ethan J. Kytle (2012):

Cooks spent long days in their poorly lit and often damp and certainly hot cellar kitchens. Some moved into better lit, newly built kitchens in the gardens. Men and children labored to chop wood and gather water from the cisterns and wood-piles that filled the hard-paved workyards. And at the end of the day, only the very few retired to a private chamber to sleep. The vast majority slept in lots of four to eight in lofts above the washhouse, bunks in the subterranean servants' hall, or on the brick floors of kitchens. These are the spaces that shaped the everyday life for the vast majority of the enslaved African Americans who lived, labored, and died at the University of Virginia. (p. 641)

In regards to the crucial functions that slaves carried within the landscape of UVA, Roberts and Kytle also provide readers with the physicality and locations upon which the timely daily livelihoods of these slaves are also openly accounted for. Specifically noting its simultaneous mirroring of the daily needs and demands it would take to create, but more importantly, sustain this landscape. This landscape of slavery was where slaves were forced to support themselves, but more potently, the landscape would not have been sustained without the slaves. Yet, in the light of the core role that these enslaved workers had at the University of Virginia, there was a deep and cruel initiative to expunge their work and livelihoods from the landscape entirely, which can be evidently witnessed in UVA's design. In the case of Jefferson's founding of the University of Virginia, as reviewed by Roberts and Kytle (2012):

Jefferson’s design had attempted to obscure the role of slavery by placing most of the workspace into the cellars of both pavilions and hotels; it was a conscious attempt to visually minimize the physical presence of the laboring black body in his idealized landscape of the university. But this vision collapsed almost immediately. Slavery spilled out of these cellars to fill the yards and gardens behind, and as later chapters will show, the Lawn and other spaces as well. (p. 641)

Jefferson thoroughly and meticulously tried to hide and diminish the roles of his enslaved workers within the educational landscape of UVA, however, one cannot hide something without first acknowledging his innate request for it to be hidden. In other words, by openly trying to design slavery out of the visual landscape, Jefferson coincidentally openly acknowledged the vital role of slavery in the physical landscape within itself.

This lack of regard for proper attribution to the enslaved workers, their handiwork, their livelihoods, and the crucial sustenance of the landscape was present in the founding times of the University of Virginia but continues to the present day. In regards to the sheer intransigence to the landscapes of slavery found all over the United States, Roberts and Kytle wrote in 2012 that this frustration is not unfound in the present black American community:

Black residents attempted to shape the public landscape in ways that acknowledged both their enslaved past and their future aspirations: they memorialized Union soldiers in cemeteries; they protested efforts to commemorate John C. Calhoun; and they challenged the erection of a statue that sought to put blacks in their "proper" place. White intransigence, in every case, proved daunting. (p. 641)

In other words, it is not exclusively the lack of representation of the slavery that took place in these landscapes of slavery, but more disturbingly, the sheer objections to such veracity.

IV. Harvard University’s Slavery

Given this paper's written location to be at Harvard University, it is only proper to address Harvard's own connections to slavery and the significance of this background in correlation to its ubiquitous landscape. Researched by Sven Beckert, Katherine Stevens, and the students of the Harvard and Slavery Research Seminar in "Harvard and Slavery: Seeking a Forgotten History" (2011), Harvard's founding is dependently tied to slavery as:

For the first 150 years of Harvard’s history, slaves not only served Harvard leaders, slave labor played a vital role in the unprecedented appreciation of wealth by New England merchants that laid the foundation of Harvard’s status as a world-class educational institution. (p. 7)

Accordingly, one of the more high profile connections is the very founding of Harvard Law School, made possible through the wealthy patronage of its slave owner, Isaac Royall Jr. It is recorded that “without slave-plantation agriculture, for example, Harvard patron Isaac Royall Jr. would not have been able to donate the lands whose sale endowed the college’s first Professorship of Law” (Beckert & Stevens, 2011, p. 7). A generous donation that began with the bequeathment of several valuable properties to Harvard, of which, as written by Beckhert and Stevens (2011):

The college eventually sold them to establish the Royall Professorship of Law in 1816, a precursor to the creation of the Harvard Law School a year later. In this quite direct manner, the labor of slaves underwrote the teaching of law in Cambridge. (p. 7)

Among many different sources of income that all directly or indirectly came from slavery, such as through the sugar trade, sugar plantations, and ship ownership, it is essential to note that none of this would have been financially possible or beneficial prior to acquiring the usage of slaves, as Royall Jr's father, Royall Sr.. "had few prospects as the son of a carpenter in Boston" before 1700 (Beckert & Stevens, 2011, p. 7). Slavery did not only magnify their family's wealth, a sizeable inheritance that would eventually trickle down to generous donations to private universities, but slavery was the source enabler of the Royall family’s financial success.

Moreover, it is pivotal to note that in regard to the family’s plantations in Surinam, the land “would have been worthless without the slaves who worked it” (Beckert & Stevens, 2011, p. 7). Here, it is evidently clear that although the generational wealth was acquired through means of the Royall’s land ownership, it is pertinent to highlight that the land in itself would not have been valuable without being toiled by slaves. It was the slaves that created the wealth on the land, not the land as an independent agent, that provided the wealth to its slave owners, and later, university trustees that prodigiously built upon the bloodshed inheritance. An inheritance in which Harvard's proud acknowledgment is widely apparent from the former seal of Harvard Law School, which bore "the crest of the former slave-owning Royall family" featuring "three sheaves of wheat overlaying a blue background," as reported in the Harvard Crimson (Parker, 2016). This approval of the Royall family could be palpably distinguished by the timeline of the seal that was only recently removed (2016) and replaced (2021).

It is essential to note, as also described by Beckhert and Stevens’s (2011) research that:

Resettled planters like the Royals were only a small subset of Massachusetts's colonists with ties to slavery in the West Indies. Harvard patrons also came from the class of merchants who, as ship owners and agents, organized the trade in slaves. The cargo lists from the ships of Harvard benefactor Israel Thorndike were typical of those who plied the West Indies trade. His ships took the staple products of Massachusetts—lumber from its forests, foodstuffs from its farms, whale oil from Nantucket or New Bedford, and animal by-products like candles and soap—to the West Indies. They returned with the slave-plantation commodities of sugar, molasses, and coffee. Occasionally, Thorndike's ships also traded slaves between islands in the West Indies. (p. 11-12)

The Royall family's connections to Harvard enabled through a wealth acquired through slavery, is only one symptom of the more extensive infestation of slavery that dominated colonial Massachusetts. As aforementioned by other families such as the Thorndike's, the entire economic industry of the state in which Harvard was found was regulated and set by demands that needed the profits of the enslavement of people and the enslaved goods in an integrated system of human exploitation. On a larger scale, Harvard University is but another one, of many examples of how slavery funded and founded the American university landscape. In other words, all university landscapes in America are landscapes of slavery, landscapes that reaped either the direct or indirect profits of a cruel system of generational human exploitation.

V. The Need To Do More

American Universities, such as Harvard, do not fully acknowledge that the entire university landscape upon which they inhabit is in reality, landscapes of slavery. However, this intransigence or lack of representation of its enslaved history is not a new phenomenon in the U.S, it is perhaps a phenomenon that is all too common.

In regards to Sullivan’s Island, “the tony beach across the harbor from downtown Charleston that once served as the major entrepot for slaves,” before the founding of a small memorial that consists of a bench titled “A Bench by the Road,” there was no memorial that paid tribute to the brutal slavery that deeply populated the city’s history (Blain Roberts & Ethan J. Kytle, 2012, p. 684). In Toni Morrison’s words, "there is no place you or I can go, to think about [slavery]...There is no suitable memorial or plaque or wreath ... There's no small bench by the road." (Blain Roberts & Ethan J. Kytle, 2012, p. 684). Yet, it can be argued that it is not enough to just have a small bench by the road. As also written by Blain Roberts and Ethan Kytle in “Looking the Thing in the Face: Slavery, Race, and the Commemorative Landscape in Charleston, South Carolina, 1865–2010” (2012):

Now there is [a bench]—in Charleston, no less. Yet the remote location and the genial reception of A Bench by the Road are suggestive in their own way. A Bench by the Road, like the Holocaust Memorial, was installed without any significant public opposition. Perhaps this reflected increasing public awareness of the tragedy of the transatlantic slave trade, or the star power of Toni Morrison. It also may have been the result of the depersonalized nature of the memorial. Dedicated to "the enslaved Africans who perished during the Middle Passage and those who arrived on Sullivan's Island," the bench is, nonetheless, an abstract representation of the horrors of slavery and the slave trade. It does not evoke slaves as individuals, much less as individuals willing to die to destroy slavery. (p. 684)

The minuscule memorials are evidence of the city's utter lack of full acknowledgment of both its role as well as its presence as a landscape of slavery. Although significant in its minor breakthrough as a memorial to slavery, the scale of the small memorial, "A Bench by the Road" is not nearly sufficient nor adequate enough of a tribute to the large scope encompassed by the monstrosity of slavery that inhabited this specific landscape for centuries.

In a similar fashion, Harvard also tried to re-assess its own history of slavery through token actions and minuscule memorials to appease the public's demand for a clear representation of this landscape of slavery. Beginning with the retirement of its seal (after being urged by the Law School's own task force committee following the events of 2016's Occupy Harvard Law School), as published by the Harvard Crimson by Michelle Kurilla (2019):

In 2016, Harvard Law School retired its former seal following historical research that revealed it has ties to slavery. “As many of you know, HLS retired its former shield in 2016 after historical research revealed that Isaac Royall, Jr., on whose family crest the shield was based following a bequest to Harvard College in 1781, earned his wealth through the labor of enslaved people,” Manning wrote.

Transitively, in an effort that took five years, Harvard Law School only revealed its new seal in 2021, as further reported by the Harvard Crimson:

Harvard Law School unveiled a new seal Monday, more than five years after the school retired its former one due to its ties to slavery. The new seal consists of the University’s motto, “veritas,” and “lex et iustitia,” law and justice, inscripted above eight curved lines, which the school said in a press release is “inspired by architectural details found in Austin and Hauser halls. (Cho, 2021)

Therefore although changing the Harvard Law School’s seal is a step in rectifying Harvard’s history, it can also be interpreted as a mere symbolic change in Harvard’s often avoidant attitude towards its past in comparison to systemic, prevalent change to its landscape representation. It is also needless to say that the time frame of the seal change of five whole years, in which almost two entire classes of law students have come through and graduated, systemic change is both difficult as well as ponderous.  

In addition to the retirement of the Law School's seal, Harvard also commissioned a plaque that was unveiled at HLS' bicentennial celebration in 2017, as published by the Harvard Gazette: 

As part of Harvard University’s efforts to recognize its early ties to slavery, officials yesterday unveiled a memorial to honor the enslaved people whose work helped found Harvard Law School. Located in the center of the Law School’s plaza, the new stone memorial features a plaque that recognizes “the enslaved whose labor created wealth that made possible the founding of the Harvard Law School,” and urges in response that the School “pursue the highest ideals of law and justice in their memory.” (Mineo, 2017)

Comparably to "A Bench by the Road," the Harvard Law School plaque was built with a more intentional design as a tribute to the horrors of slavery that enabled the very foundation of this specific landscape. However, like a bench on the side of a road, there is a vivid usage of visual tokenism than a true reflection of the site in its entirety as a landscape of slavery. As someone that has personally walked the well-manicured gardens of Harvard Law School on a daily basis, there is a very, ironically, invisible expungement of slavery among the splendor of neo-classical marble columns and fresh beds of fragrantly pruned flowers and other vegetation. This is not to say that Harvard Law School's current landscape should not encompass elegant architecture or sublime landscaping but to merely re-enforce the question and need for more substantial representation and adherence to the landscape of slavery that it is and has always been.

VI. Conclusion

Representation is intrinsic to landscape architecture. However, before representation can be communicated in a visual spector through design, historians and designers must first reference and recognize the true history that needs to be presented. In Hunt’s words, “knowledge of both - the garden formulations and their ‘referents’ - enhances the experience of each” (Hunt, 2008, p. 76). If so, then references to the history upon which the landscape is built both within and upon - must be made to the inhumane exploitation of human labor that made it possible. Hence, it is for this reason, upon many, that it is solemnly cardinal to acknowledge American university landscapes as landscapes of slavery. Universities, whose historic founders and major donors made their wealth from industries such as cotton, oil, steel, railroads, agriculture, etc., that relied heavily directly or indirectly on the profits of slavery. As spoken by former Harvard University President Drew Faust in regards to the memorial ceremony of Harvard Law School's plaque (in recognition of the school's founding ties to slavery), Faust speaks:

How fitting that you should begin your bicentennial with this ceremony reminding us that the path toward justice is neither smooth nor straight. Let us dedicate ourselves to the clear-eyed view of history that will enable us to build a more just future in honor of the stolen lives we memorialize here. (Mineo, 2017)

If a crucial role of landscape historians is to record, analyze, and understand the history of the natural and built landscape, and the role of landscape architects to design upon that very history for the present and future - then both must reckon with the colossal effects of slavery. Slavery was enforced and imprinted onto the natural landscape to the built landscape upon which we enjoy, utilize, and learn from today. Hence, this process must incarnate the veritas (as described by Harvard’s Latin motto), the truth of the universities of slavery in the prevalent American landscape. 


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