Dickinson College Wednesday unveiled a walk through history as the latest on-campus project to build on the recommendations of the Dickinson & Slavery project.
The project explored the college’s complex ties to slavery, and resulted in a 2019 report that included recommendations for renaming buildings and revisions to names of scholarships, endowed chairs, lectureships and other honorifics, as well as for the installation of wayside markers to tell the stories of the college’s ties to both slavery and anti-slavery.
Those markers, developed by the college’s House Divided Project, are the basis of the new self-guided history walk.
More than 50 student interns have worked at the House Divided Project and a dozen worked on the Dickinson and Slavery project, said Matthew Pinsker, director of the House Divided Project and Dickinson College history professor.
“Each one of them has done an amazing job,” he said.
The launch of the walk was the first formal ceremony or event on campus in more than a year, and Dickinson College President Margee Ensign said it is appropriate that it is an event that acknowledges the work of the students and faculty.
In her comments at the ceremony, Ensign spoke of the history of the House Divided Project and the Dickinson and Slavery report, recalling the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words that the time is always ripe to do right.
“In this spirit, Dickinson College is doing right. We are more thoroughly and thoughtfully reconsidering our history as an institution and as a society,” she said. “We are remembering those whose often heroic lives have been ignored or forgotten.”
She added that the college is determined to tell a more complete, inclusive and just history of what has happened on the campus and in the community and country.
“We must continue to make this country, this campus, our world more inclusive,” Ensign said.
The half-mile walk features six stops that explore the college’s connections to slavery, beginning at Old West. Both the current Old West building and its predecessor that was destroyed by fire were built by slaves who were rented to the college by the Carlisle residents who owned them.
The wayside marker sits near the statue of college founder Benjamin Rush.
“We want to highlight the contradictory views that Rush and John Dickinson had on slavery,” said Amanda Sowah, a junior at Dickinson College. “Both John Dickinson and Benjamin Rush were both slaveholders yet they abhorred slavery.”
Both men eventually freed their slaves, though they still profited from their work, Sowah said.
A marker is also dedicated to the Dred Scott decision, a Supreme Court case that ruled that Black people could not be considered U.S. citizens and invalidated restrictions against the spread of slavery.
Dickinson College had ties to men on both sides of the decision, said Charlotte Goodman, a sophomore at Dickinson. Chief Justice Roger Taney, who wrote the majority opinion, Justice Robert Grier, who voted with the majority, and President James Buchanan, who vocally supported the decision, were all Dickinson College graduates. Justice John McLean, who dissented with the majority decision, was a former trustee of the college.
“We wanted to create this marker as a cautionary tale for modern Dickinsonians. The lesson being that knowledge does not lead to justice and just because one knows does not mean that one understands,” Goodman said, adding that the illiterate, unschooled Scott had a better grasp of the promise of the Constitution than men like Taney.
A series of stops on the walk draw attention to the role of free Black people and formerly enslaved people who were employed by the college. Dickinson College junior Liz McCreary said the college employed more than two dozen individuals who were born into slavery and worked on campus.
A resident of Carlisle and graduate of Carlisle High School, McCreary said there’s often focus on people like Rush and Dickinson, but it’s these Black men whose stories are generally not known who made the campus what it was and enjoyed great popularity among the students.
“It’s the little difference-makers like these men here that helped to make Dickinson the campus that it was. Like, Noah Pinkney selling ice cream and pretzels,” McCreary said, pointing to a large colorized photo that includes Pinkley and other men. “It’s not all about Benjamin Rush founding the college. It’s these people that help make a difference in the environment in the college.”
The walk ends at Cooper Hall. Last spring, the Dickinson College Board of Trustees voted to rename the residence hall to Spradley-Young Hall to honor Henry Spradley and Robert Young. Formerly enslaved, the two men were longtime college employees who helped integrate the campus in the 19th century.
“We’ve held off the official renaming of Cooper so that we can bring the descendants of these people back to participate in the ceremony which we’re planning to do in November of this coming fall semester,” Pinsker said.
The campus is currently closed to visitors due to the pandemic, but the walk will be available to the public when the campus reopens. Information about each of the stops on the walk is available at the House Divided website at housedivided.dickinson.edu/sites/slavery/tour.
Photos: House Divided Project at Dickinson College
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