U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Alt-Reparations for Jim Crow Higher Ed

Sign, circa 1943, from the Library of Congress via New World Encyclopedia

The University of Virginia, in 1921, received a pledge from the KKK to donate $1000. Although it’s not known, for sure, whether the donation was made, the pledge was noted by former university president Edwin Alderman. His letter of “hearty thanks” was signed “faithfully yours.”

Virginia Chancellor Teresa Sullivan is taking no chances on whether the pledge was fulfilled. As penance for the profane act of accepting even the pledge, an equivalent sum ($12,500 in 2017 dollars) is being given to victims of the August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally of white supremacists. The historical gift was noted in a news story right after the rally. The gift announcement from Sullivan occurred today (Th, 9/14). Funds came from private sources, and are being given to the “Charlottesville Patient Support Fund, which is managed by the UVA Health Foundation.”

The cynic in me says this is the reappropriation of an existing gift—with permission (perhaps) but for public relations purposes. Encouraged by the marketing and development teams, UVa leadership was coaxed into a strategic act of public penance. And who doesn’t want to help the victims of violence, of any kind? Sullivan attempted to parry my kind of cynicism, saying: “We’re going to acknowledge the pledge, and we’re going to do so in a way that would be as disagreeable as possible for any remnants of the KKK who may be watching.” To me, however, the university could’ve made a real statement by giving the money to Black Lives Matter, or an HBCU, or the Southern Poverty Law Center. But maybe I’m too militant. And maybe that’s too much of a pointy stick in the eye for UVa’s genteel donor base.

Rather than this kind soft-reparation for a singular act of Jim Crow financial terrorism, why not engage in some real, comprehensive “alternative reparations”*?  And what would a “real” genre of alt-reparations look like for higher ed institutions? [*I use the the term “alternative reparations” to reserve the proper notion of Reparations for slavery in the United States.]

First, and pertinent to the story above, all higher ed institutions would scour their donation history for gifts from the KKK and similar groups. Like UVa, they would then make a reparation gift to a organizations that work for justice in higher education. That gift could also go toward a scholarship fund dedicated to people of color.

Second, all institutional scholarships aimed at people of color should be weighted toward need. And merit should be broadly considered.

Third, a national scholarship program should be instituted for all people of color. Alternatively, we could come up with a college-for-all program. That program could contain funding for a special effort to encourage people of color to attend college.

Fourth, all HBCUs should be generously funded by the federal government. That funding should cover capital and personnel costs.

Fifth, all higher ed institutions should examine their symbols, names, and various racist legacies. Those symbols should be removed or “properly contextualized.” All buildings dedicated to white supremacists and Confederates should be renamed.

These five points are not exhaustive, but at least constitute some baseline for a material and cultural program of reparations in higher ed for Jim Crow-era discrimination.  – TL