April 2024

UMB Confronts Ties to Slavery and Racism

April 22, 2024    |  

When Ida Powell first heard the findings of the University of Maryland, Baltimore’s (UMB) 1807 Commission on Slavery and Racism, it was a deeply emotional experience.

Diane Forbes Berthoud, PhD, MA, UMB chief equity, diversity, and inclusion officer and vice president.

Diane Forbes Berthoud, PhD, MA, UMB chief equity, diversity, and inclusion officer and vice president.

“It’s a lot. It’s a lot,” said Powell, a longtime UMB employee who works as a lead in the Department of Environmental Services (EVS). “You walk into these buildings and you feel different now,” Powell said.

The 1807 Commission, formed in 2021, conducted extensive research with the help of History Associates, Inc. (HAI), a for-profit consulting firm, examining 14 individuals associated with UMB buildings. The names, including John Beale Davidge of the eponymous Davidge Hall, were provided to the firm by the UMB 1807 Commission.

HAI investigated the individuals at repositories including the Library of Congress, the Maryland State Archives, the New York Public Library, and numerous digital sources.

“We conducted our research through the lens of researchers and historians, but this is part of a larger social justice endeavor that we are honored to be a part of,” said Megan Anderson, director of exhibits and historical planning, HAI.

The commission’s report, released April 4 during a presentation at the Dr. Samuel D. Harris National Museum of Dentistry, documents how figures whose names grace campus buildings were directly connected to the enslavement of Black people or held racist ideologies that demonstrated a belief that whites were superior to people of color.

It found that four had direct ties to slavery, seven expressed racist views, and three had no known connections to these harmful legacies.

It’s a stark reckoning for the University, one that leaders say is necessary to fully understand UMB’s history and chart a more equitable future.

UMB President Bruce E. Jarrell, MD, FACS, said the report is part of the University’s responsibility to examine its full history, both positive and painful.

“This our history,” Jarrell said. “We’re here today to talk about part of our history that is not well known that we are in the process of discovering.”

Among the findings:

  • John Beale Davidge, founder of the College of Medicine in Maryland and for whom Davidge Hall is named, enslaved at least eight people in Baltimore.
  • George Gray, a Scottish merchant who bequeathed $5,000 to the University and for whom George Gray Research Hall is named, profited from the tobacco trade, which relied on enslaved labor.
  • Former Maryland Gov. John Eager Howard, who donated land for the medical school and for whom Howard Hall is named, enslaved at least 42 people and advocated for laws that disproportionately punished enslaved individuals.
  • Architect Robert Cary Long Sr., who built Davidge Hall, enslaved two people.

The report also details the racist views of individuals like Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, and Dorothea Dix, a 19th-century mental health reformer.

Patrick Cutter, MBA, MA, assistant director of the dental museum, was not surprised at the findings. “Knowing a little about Baltimore history and the individuals in the 1700s and 1800s, it was a very divided city,” he said. “But it’s always important to know the history of what we’ve come from and the impact it had not only on the campus itself but the community around it.”

Elise Petersen, MHP, who is the dental museum’s education coordinator, agreed. “As a public historian, I feel strongly that good history is equity work,” Petersen said. “Today we’re looking at the people whose names are on these buildings and the people who built them who have not been acknowledged. The importance of uncovering this work is everything, and we will not have equity without it.”

Diane Forbes Berthoud, PhD, MA, UMB’s chief equity, diversity, and inclusion officer and vice president, emphasized the importance of uncovering the University’s links to racism as part of a broader reckoning happening at universities nationwide.

“This work is important for us as an institution as we live our commitment for equity and justice and doing what is right as an institution for not only our University community members, but our broader Baltimore and Maryland communities,” she said.

For EVS lead Powell and others, the report’s revelations are a crucial first step — and one that must be paired with meaningful action and community engagement.

“We need to be heard. We need to be seen. This university was built on the backs of Black people,” Powell said.

HAI’s research will continue in a second phase, exploring UMB’s deeper historical ties to slavery, racism, and the devaluation of marginalized groups.

While no formal recommendations have been made at this point, Forbes Berthoud said that University leadership will solicit feedback during the spring and summer of 2024, which will include presentations to alumni and the community.    

“This is our opportunity to lead in this area, and we would like to continue to encourage people to engage in our conversations, engage in our decision-making, and engage in providing input and suggestions, because what we’re doing is a collective effort,” Forbes Berthoud said.

Fall 2024 will bring continued exploration and action, which could include following the models of other universities that have embarked on this journey including Harvard, Georgetown, Yale, and Villanova. Harvard, for example, set up an endowment fund for slavery reparations, while Villanova created a $7.5 million deanship to honor its Black founders. Other options include renaming buildings, building memorials, and curricular changes. 

“There are all kinds of models,” Forbes Berthoud said. “Some have more focus on economics; some have more focus on curriculum and social change as well as community building and engagement.”

For the next few months, HAI will continue its research to facilitate UMB’s work of reconciling with the past and supporting efforts to ensure a more just present and equitable future for the University and the surrounding community.

“Acknowledging what we’ve done in terms of our history, whether it’s good or bad, is a step forward in accountability,” said Neijma Celestine-Donnor, JD, MSW, associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. “And in order to achieve equity, I think you have to start with accountability.”