University of Delaware to offer courses in school's ties to slavery, racism

By Rachel Sawicki
Posted 7/8/21

NEWARK — The University of Delaware will offer two new courses in the fall created by the UD Anti-Racism Initiative (UDARI). These are designed to research the role that universities across the …

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University of Delaware to offer courses in school's ties to slavery, racism


NEWARK — The University of Delaware will offer two new courses in the fall created by the UD Anti-Racism Initiative (UDARI). These are designed to research the role that universities across the country played in slavery and racism.

They are also part of UD’s commitment to Universities Studying Slavery, a consortium that consists of about 80 other institutions, most in the United States along with some in Canada, Ireland and the United Kingdom, and based at the University of Virginia. Their mission is to explore the history concerning universities’ ties to the slave trade and its aftermath.

The two courses at UD are an oral history seminar that highlights African American voices in Delaware and a history research course about the university’s ties to slavery.

Dr. Dael Norwood Ph.D., assistant professor at UD and 19th century America historian, will teach the research course, Race and Inequality in Delaware.

“By really digging into the history of a specific place or a specific institution … this microcosm becomes a macrocosm,” Dr. Norwood said.

“By looking very closely at a particular institution or place or set of people, you find their connections to the rest of the world and bigger trends.”

Dr. Norwood said students will explore the finances of the university, the role that faculty and students played in promoting either pro- or anti-slavery and the relationship that free black communities had with UD, or Delaware College as it was named in the time period of study.

“We want to know the truth, we want to have an honest conversation about the role of this institution, we want to know about this institution because we’re part of it, and I think that is particularly true for students,” Dr. Norwood said. “As faculty, you kind of have a connection, but it’s not the same as this core moment in students’ lives.”

Dr. Alison Parker Ph.D., co-chair woman of UDARI, said there are several projects the research could benefit, including renaming buildings on campus. She said the initiative also intends to share the research in various ways through documentaries from students in digital humanities and research displays in the library.

“In order to make UD a more welcoming and inclusive space, you have to acknowledge what it was and has been and work pretty hard to find ways to change the dynamic or the understandings of the people who are here, so that other people can feel welcome and comfortable being here,” Dr. Parker said.

She said UD is the perfect place to start looking for where structural racism exists and how to dismantle it.

“Research universities are a really good place to do that because we have all of the possible resources to at least start interrogating ... our own past, including looking at the legacies of slavery and indigenous dispossession, in the context of the growth of UD,” Dr. Parker said.

Dr. Parker said UD fought to keep the school segregated and was only desegregated in 1950 by court order.

Rising UD senior Jalen Adams said he thinks the research initiative is a good start, but ultimately wants to see more involvement and interest in the student body as well, noting that many of his peers seem politically uninterested in social justice issues.

“I would feel better if it was better reflected in the student body rather than just [renaming] buildings or creating an archive to say ‘look what we did’ and nobody even really knows or is paying attention to it,” Mr. Adams said.

He adds that UD’s demographics still reflect a large majority of White students and faculty.

“The White teachers I’ve had that teach [Black history] have been great, but I can’t take it as seriously as with a Black professor, because it just feels right for Black professors and professors in college to teach the material that they would know from experience,” Mr. Adams said.

Jasmine Bunkley is a Delaware State University student who spent her first two years of higher education taking University of Delaware courses through the Associates in Arts Program. She transferred to DSU in fall 2019, which she says changed her life.

Ms. Bunkley said UD’s history courses didn’t focus much on the “Black experience,” and she never had those experiences in grade school either.

“If you asked me four years ago whether I was comfortable being taught Black history by a white professor, I would have said it was fine because I had never been taught from the Black experience before,” Ms. Bunkley said. “Now, especially considering everything that’s been happening the last year, it would make me uncomfortable.”

Ms. Bunkley said the agenda is not to make anyone uncomfortable, however. She said having tough conversations is necessary when addressing racial justice issues.

“It’s not a huge risk for White people to feel uncomfortable having conversations about race, but we feel uncomfortable and take risks every day just walking down the street,” Ms. Bunkley said.

Ms. Bunkley noted that her grade-point average sat at a 1.9 when she left UD. Since enrolling at DSU, she said she feels her voice and experience as a woman of color has been uplifted, which gave her more confidence and ultimately led to a 3.8 GPA.

“If you really want to teach about the Black experience, what better person to use than a Black history professor? That’s uplifting a Black voice right there,” Ms. Bunkley said.

As a White professor, Dr. Norwood acknowledges he has “blinders” when it comes to the Black experience.

“I want to acknowledge the historical profession, much like other knowledge disciplines, has a past of doing this very wrong,” Dr. Norwood said. “And what we’re trying to do is be honest and truthful and dig into the sources.”

He said history is messy.

“It’s not about heroes and villains,” Dr. Norwood said. “We talk about people, and people do terrible things to each other. Part of what we want to understand is what was their motivation, what were their constraints, and where was the realm of human agency.”

There are Delawareans alive today who remember the time in history that these students will be studying. And Dr. Norwood adds that some of them are still serving as elected officials too. Delaware did not abolish the whipping post until 1972, the same year that Joe Biden was first elected as a Delaware senator, and the last whipping post on public display in the state was removed just over one year ago.

“There are profound disparities in health care, in housing and in economic status that continue,” Dr. Norwood said. “A lot of these structures live on.”