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Ben Franklin, the founder of the University of Pennsylvania, owned slaves early in his life before he became the leader of an abolitionist group. — Submitted photo

A little over a week ago, Georgetown University surprised the nation by not only openly admitting the role of slavery in the school’s establishment, but also announcing it would atone for it by awarding preferential admission to slave descendants of the school’s Jesuit founders.

“We must acknowledge that Georgetown University participated in the institution of slavery,” the school’s president, John DeGioia, told TheAssociated Press. “There were slaves here on this hilltop until emancipation in 1862.”

In fact, according to the AP article, two priests who served as the school’s president orchestrated the sale of 272 men, women and children for $115,000 – $3.3 million in today’s dollars – to pay off the school’s debts in 1838.

Craig S. Wilde, professor of history at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in his book, “Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery and the Troubled History of America’s Universities,” argues that “practically every college and university founded during colonial-era America – Harvard, William & Mary, Yale, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia, Brown, Rutgers and Darthmouth – has a history of slavery to confront.”

Wilde’s finding was featured in an article by journalist David Austin Walsh published in the History News Network.

While Georgetown is the first of the nation’s major universities that seeks to atone for its participation in our nation’s ugliest sin, it isn’t the only major U.S. university to finally begin confronting the issue.

Brown University’s Ruth Simmons, the first African American and the first woman president to lead an Ivy League school, commissioned a study there in 2003. It resulted in a 2006 report that “drawn from Brown family faculty, administration, and alumni, acknowledged the deep, intertwined history of the slave trade and the university – and the role slave labor played in the very construction of the school,” according to the History News Network article.

Since then, Harvard, Princeton, William and Mary, Emory, the University of Maryland and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have or are in the process of such examination.

In the History News article, Wilde stated that “faculty, students, librarians, alumni, and now even the presidents of these institutions – and even the trustees – are increasingly taking steps to recognize this history, and to acknowledge it, and to address it in institutionally specific ways.”

One school not mentioned in reference to this self-examining was our own University of Pennsylvania.

However, the university is not absent from Wilde’s evidence. His book contains an image from a Pennsylvania Gazette newspaper ad dated June 25, 1747, and credited to a UPenn trustee that reads, “... to be sold by Charles Willing, several likely Negro Men and Boys,” along with some Barbados rum, sugar and “a variety of dry goods imported from England.”

So I called the University of Pennsylvania to inquire whether it, too, had examined any possible slave ties.

Ron Ozio, spokesman for the school, responded, “Penn has explored this issue several times over the past few decades and found no direct university involvement with slavery or the slave trade.

“It’s well known that our founder, Ben Franklin, early in his life owned slaves, but later became a leading abolitionist, ultimately serving as president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery,” he noted.

Wilde might be surprised to hear that, given that he called our nation’s oldest universities — along with the church and the state – “the third pillar of a civilization based on bondage.”

UPenn is one of the city’s well-heeled institutions that benefit from a nonprofit financial status – paying no taxes for such city services as street maintenance and public schools — and its physical growth over the decades uprooted many African-American residents of West Philadelphia, so its future and its history is important to us all.

While I’m skeptical of UPenn’s exploration of any involvement in slavery, we must remain vigilante in pointing out the footprints — and blood, sweat and tears — of our ancestors in building the major institutions of our land.

Sheila Simmons is an award-winning journalist and a public relations specialist. She is the author of “Memoir of a Minnie Riperton Fan.” She can be reached at ssimmons@phillytrib.com or www.simmonssheila.com.

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