One man owned slaves but freed them before standing against slavery at the Constitutional Convention. Another man didn’t own slaves, but supported slavery in his role as president of the United States.
Both, John Dickinson and James Buchanan, respectively, are honored on the campus of Dickinson College in Carlisle.
The question before the college and community is whether those memorials should continue.
In a post on the House Divided webpage, Dickinson professor of history Matthew Pinsker said the Civil War research engine he helped start is creating a report that will not only summarize the college’s ties to both slavery and antislavery efforts but also present an analysis of how the college and the Carlisle community “have remembered — or have chosen to ignore — some of these subjects over the years and suggest how they might better commemorate them in the future.”
The project wants to collect opinions from the Dickinson and Carlisle communities on whether some names should come down or whether portraits or statues should be moved. They are also trying to determine if there are different or creative ways to commemorate the black people who lived and worked on campus, Pinsker said.
“We want to give people on the campus and around the community an opportunity to share their views about how they think commemoration should work,” he said.
Comments may be made at the project’s website.
Dickinson College emailed a statement to The Sentinel stating, “We will await the students’ final report and their thoughtful recommendations, which will go to Dickinson’s President’s Commission on Inclusivity, and then to President Margee M. Ensign and the Board of Trustees. Renaming buildings is certainly one of the measures we are ready to consider.”
“This project is emblematic of the important work our students do to uncover new knowledge and previously ignored historical stories. As Professor Matthew Pinsker, the historian and Lincoln scholar who led the project, has articulated, now that we know about the contribution slaves and former slaves made to the college as well as ties to slavery by individuals we have commemorated, what do we do?” the statement continued.
Only one of three key black figures from the 19th century, Noah Pinkney, is commemorated on campus with a plaque. A former slave who served in the Union Army and was at Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Pinkney became a food vendor for students before serving them at a restaurant at his nearby home.
The other two men, Henry Spradley and Robert Young, were named by the House Divided project as potential candidates for commemoration. Spradley, a former slave who escaped during the Civil War and fought in the Union Army, became a janitor at the college. He was so beloved by the college community that the college even closed for a day in his honor when he died in 1897.
Born a slave, Young worked his way from household servant to janitor to head of campus security over a 40-year career at the college. Despite backlash, he fought to get his oldest son admitted to the college in 1886.
House Divided has identified seven former slaveholders who are memorialized on campus. Dickinson, Benjamin Rush and James Wilson all freed slaves they may have owned and came to oppose slavery. Buchanan, John Armstrong, Thomas Cooper and John Montgomery never renounced slavery.
Figures like Dickinson and Rush, the college’s founder, are central to the college’s history. Everyone else is more peripheral, which offers more grounds for debate and consideration, Pinsker said.
Arguably the most prime territory for debate revolves around buildings that weren’t named until the 20th century.
Cooper Hall was known as “Quad 3” from the time it first held students in 1964 until 1991 when it was named after Cooper, a professor and scientist who served four years at Dickinson College and became a pro-slavery figure after taking a position as president of a college in South Carolina.
Montgomery Hall was acquired by the college in 1950 and named after John Montgomery, who was one of Carlisle’s largest slaveholders and an early trustee and advocate for the college.
The question of renaming buildings or moving statues is difficult, but Pinsker said the most important part is to have a forum in which people can contribute to the discussion.
“It’s better to be open, transparent and deliberate about it,” he said.
For some people, making a mistake or taking actions reflective of the times in which they lived isn’t enough to erase everything else they did. Others say those who never came to see the light on slavery still deserve commemoration for other reasons, a position that is harder for some people to accept, Pinsker said.
“People disagree over these things. But, most people, I think a majority of people, are willing to concede that every historical figure has flaws, and if they show signs of growth, that’s an important thing to share and commemorate, too,” Pinsker said.
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The upcoming report springs from research done in connection with the current exhibit, Dickinson and Slavery, that opened at the House Divided Studio at 61 N. West St. in February.
Since the opening, a steady stream of local residents have visited the exhibit, which is open from 9 a.m. to noon on Wednesdays.
One of the people who visited the exhibit was Carlisle Mayor Tim Scott, who said he was impressed.
“I was amazed at the contributions of African-American citizens who were connected to the college,” he said.
After some talks between Scott and Pinsker, the mayor decided to have House Divided give a presentation on its findings to the borough council on May 9.
“I believe the exhibit should be presented to the community because it represents a genuine effort to address the Carlisle community’s, by proxy the nation’s, complicated history with race and the beginning of what I hope will be a conversation that, while uncomfortable, is an important one we need to have,” Scott said.
“I would imagine it’s possible that the town might want to consider doing something similar in terms of opening up public comment on commemoration and thinking about ways to alter the balance between slaveholders and the enslaved and try to do a better job of recognizing their contributions to the town,” Pinsker said.
The report is expected to be submitted to the President’s Council on Inclusivity by the end of the month. It will be evaluated over the spring and possibly into the fall, Pinsker said.
“It’s better when it’s deliberate. That’s what I keep telling everybody. There’s no need to rush,” he said.