In 1789, when the University of King’s College was founded by Loyalist refugees in Nova Scotia, indentured labour was common in British North America; slavery was not outlawed in most British colonies until 1834. “For many of those years, King’s was the only university in the province and it was a university that had many connections with the political and economic elites,” said King’s current president, William Lahey.
For this and other reasons, King’s has announced that it is undergoing a year-long, scholarly review of its connections to slavery. Guided by an expert review panel, researchers in Canada and the United States are examining how the university may have profited from, or contributed to, the transatlantic slave trade during the 18th and 19th centuries.
“This is not just being done for academic purposes but in fact has a bearing on those living and working in the community,” said Douglas Ruck, a member of the review panel and incoming board chair at King’s. “What we don’t know about King’s is who in fact was involved in the construction of the university. People actually had to lay those early stones – who were they, and where did they come from?”
Mr. Ruck, a Halifax-based lawyer and a former provincial ombudsman for Nova Scotia, said he recalls being one of only two Black students when he began his studies at King’s in 1969, though there were other members of Halifax’s Black community on campus: “They were serving in janitorial capacities, working in the kitchens, maintaining the university. But I think it’s fair to say they may not have been considered by many to be part of the university.”
King’s in Halifax has a circuitous history that leads to the steps of Columbia University in New York, which was founded as King’s College before the American Revolution. In 2017, Columbia released research findings about its own institutional connections to slavery. Among the findings, researchers noted that “[f]rom the outset, slavery was intertwined with the life of the college. Of the ten men who served as presidents of King’s and Columbia between 1754 and the end of the Civil War, at least half owned slaves at one point in their lives.” Other U.S. universities that have investigated their connections to slavery include Brown, Georgetown, Harvard, Yale and the University of Virginia.
Dorota Glowacka, chair of the review panel and a Holocaust scholar at King’s, said that the Canadian investigation would take a cue from Columbia, which included student researchers in the process. “I’d like to see what they did and perhaps have students involved beyond the fact that they are on the review committee,” she said.
The review at King’s also builds off a similar scholarly investigation underway at Dalhousie University. That university, which shares its Halifax campus with King’s, created a panel in 2016 to investigate the legacy of founder and namesake George Ramsay, ninth Earl of Dalhousie. The Dalhousie panel will release its report later this year, and King’s will follow in early 2019.
Both inquiries are happening alongside public commitments made by several Canadian universities to meaningfully address diversity and inclusion on their campuses, noted Dr. Lahey. “We do not have enough diversity in this university community – that’s been given to me as a mandate by our board of governors – and tackling these questions in an open, transparent and scholarly way is one of the things we’re doing to make ourselves more welcoming as a community to people of diverse racial backgrounds,” he said.
The day that the inquiry was announced at King’s, the university hosted members of the African-Nova Scotian community at an event held at the Cornwallis Street Baptist Church, which was founded in 1832 by Reverend Richard Preston, the son of a slave who came to Halifax by way of Virginia. Rhonda Britton, senior pastor at the church, said she was curious what the investigation might yield. “It would be really interesting to find out if there was something in the history of the school that has remained alive in our living out of this history,” Ms. Britton said, “that somehow people have some innate sense that … maybe we don’t want to attend that institution, and people may not even know why.”
I bet somewhere down the line their ancestors also dabbled in homophobia, domestic abuse, and other things we no longer consider tolerable. Better start up a fact finding commission!