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Dartmouth Grapples With Founding's Legacy Of Slavery

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Eli Burakian, Dartmouth College, Courtesy
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Dartmouth College is working to address its history of slavery.

In the 250th year since its founding, Dartmouth College is confronting its history of profiting from the labor, sale and purchase of enslaved people. The college's founder was deeply involved in that brutal exploitation.

In 1776, Reverend Eleazar Wheelock wrote a letter concerning how and when he would pay for two items: a wheel of cheese, and a human being. He was a resident of the state of New Hampshire, and he was also the founder and first president of Dartmouth College.

Freelance reporter Matt Golec wrote about this letter — which was recently discovered by Dartmouth archivist Peter Carini — and what Dartmouth is doing with it, in an article for the Valley News. He spoke about it with VPR's Morning Edition host, Mitch Wertlieb.

Golec says people may have the misconception that slavery was unheard of or generally opposed in Northern states.

"In reporting this story and doing some other reading, I learned that [slavery] was fairly common here," he said. "The Atlantic merchants that helped build some of the big port cities in New England were involved in the slave trade or at least had some economic ties there. And many professionals such as doctors and ministers had one or two slaves that they owned."

"Wheelock was a little unusual, in that he owned I think 19 slaves over his lifetime," Golec added. "That's kind of a big number for New England. We do have some little hints from his logbooks and things of him renting out enslaved people to do some work for neighbors. And it's supposed that they helped clear some of the big pine trees that were present here on Dartmouth's campus."

Golec said other universities and colleges like Brown, Princeton and Harvard have taken an institutional approach and released major reports. But not Dartmouth.

"Dartmouth has taken a little bit of a different approach," he said. "It's a more decentralized approach, where they are letting different people within the college [lead], such as Peter Carini, and especially sociology professor Deborah King, who is leading an undergraduate class on slavery at Dartmouth," he said. "But Dartmouth is not having one sort of focused official response to their role in slavery. It's sort of percolating throughout the school in different places, and there are pros and cons to that of course."

Golec did say Dartmouth College is weaving Reverend Eleazar Wheelock's letter — and its insights into the institution's historical ties to slavery — into its 250th anniversary commemoration.

"People are not sort of ashamed of this," he said. "People were actually pleased and proud that Dartmouth was addressing it, albeit in a decentralized way."

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