University Forms Working Group to Examine the Role of Slavery in Penn’s Early Years

A Message to the Penn Community
​​​​​​​On the Role of Slavery in Penn’s Early Years
Amy Gutmann, President
Wendell Pritchett, Provost

At the end of the fall semester, a group of Penn undergraduates delivered the results of important research they had undertaken as part of Professor Kathleen Brown’s Penn Slavery Project.  Their work, combined with recent University research, revealed that approximately half of Penn’s early Trustees owned slaves.  While it has long been known that Penn’s founder, Benjamin Franklin had owned slaves early in his life before becoming a leading abolitionist, the student’s work cast a new light on our historical understanding of the reach of slavery’s connections to Penn.

After meeting with the students to hear of their work firsthand, we agreed that the University would form a small working group to explore the matter further so that we might improve our community’s understanding of the impact and implications of slavery on Penn’s past and what it means for the present and the future.  Our intention is to seek the truth and acknowledge it, and to offer recommendations for any next steps.

Today we are announcing the formation of that group, which will be chaired by Provost Pritchett, and include Sr. Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer Joann Mitchell; Kathleen Brown, the David Boies Professor of History and Director of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies; Heather Williams, Presidential Professor and Professor of Africana Studies; and Dorothy Roberts, Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor and the George A. Weiss Professor of Law and Sociology, the Raymond Pace and Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander Professor of Civil Rights, and Professor of Africana Studies.

We also expect to engage students in Professor Brown’s class, as well as other undergraduate and graduate students, and faculty who may be able to assist with this important work. It is our expectation that the broad contours of the work could be completed this semester – at least sufficient to help us shape a set of next steps to allow a fuller illumination of this part of Penn’s history.

The institution of slavery is a profoundly shameful and deeply tragic part of American history.  It is important that we fully understand how it affected our University in its early years and that we reflect as a university about the current meaning of this history. We are grateful to our students and Professor Brown for their work in broadening our understanding. We will report on the group’s findings after their work has been completed.