CARLISLE, Pa. (AP) — Dickinson College has long been proud of its Colonial-era history, one framed forever by its standing as the first college to be chartered west of the Susquehanna River, launched to ensure the expanding frontiers of the new American nation would have access to future leaders educated to the highest standards of the day.
But what about the people who - at the time of the college’s founding and literally for decades thereafter - didn’t fit within the frames of that picture?
Specifically, the men and women of color who, for its first century, weren’t invited to attend classes at the Carlisle campus, but did have roles in serving the men who founded it - sometimes as slaves - laboring for the contractors who built it, or as freedmen after the Civil War, faithfully serving in any number of background roles?
They are now getting their stories told publicly, too, as Dickinson completes a years-long project aimed at sorting through the Carlisle campus’ — which drew students from almost evenly from both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line in the years before the Civil War — tangled history with slavery and race.
Consider the cases of the college’s namesake, John Dickinson, and founding trustee, Benjamin Rush, who lead off the six wayside markers making up a new “Dickinson and Slavery” historic walking tour.
Dickinson owned almost 60 slaves at one point at his Delaware plantation, before coming to see owning other humans as morally wrong following his marriage to a Quaker woman in the 1770s. Dickinson gradually freed all of his slaves by 1786, and by 1787 he was making vehement anti-slavery arguments at the Constitutional Convention.
Rush, meanwhile, held slaves or indentured servants in his Philadelphia household for years. He kept one man, William Grubber, on hand as an indentured servant for six years after first promising him freedom in 1788, as “just compensation for my having paid for him the full price of a slave for life.”
These were, history professor Matthew Pinsker said, “people who said they were in favor of equality, and they actually claimed they were against slavery, but they still lived with slavery. It was this contradiction that they lived with, and we’re trying to figure out how to commemorate and study that to try to understand what they believed, but also to properly commemorate the people who suffered because of it.”
The contradictions ran far past the college’s founding.
By the mid-19th Century, Dickinson alums had their fingers all over the infamous Dred Scott case, where an enslaved man sued for freedom after his Southern owner moved to a free territory. In 1857, then-Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Roger B. Taney — a Dickinson College graduate — wrote a majority opinion holding that, among other things, American Blacks “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
A longtime Dickinson trustee, John McLean of Ohio, was one of two dissenting justices.
The Scott Case and its players are featured on Dickinson’s new tour, student Charlotte Goodman said, as a cautionary tale for present and future Dickinsonians.
“Just because one knows, does not mean one understands,” Goodman said. “Dred and Harriet Scott were kept illiterate. Dred Scott could not sign his own name. But they understood the promise of the U.S. Constitution better than men like Taney and Grier.”
Other stops on the Dickinson & Slavery walking tour include:
House Divided Studio – Outdoor markers and murals help commemorate the role of free Blacks and formerly enslaved people in Dickinson history.
Pinkney Gate – A gate leading from North West Street to the Dickinson campus has been renamed to honor Carrie and Noah Pinkney, popular Carlisle food sellers who catered to Dickinson students during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
Black Employees – A marker highlights the contributions of various Black employees during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
Spradley-Young Hall – A banner temporarily marks the re-dedication of this residence hall off West High Street in honor of Henry W. Spradley and Robert C. Young, two longtime employees of the college and noted community leaders.
In the latter case, the college will formally celebrate in November the renaming of residence hall once named for Thomas Cooper, a former faculty member and prominent early 19th Century scientist who became, later in his life, a leading defender of slavery in South Carolina.
Cooper Hall will be renamed for Spradley and Young, both former slaves who relocated to Carlisle and served the college for decades as janitors after the Civil War. Young is even credited with the first move to integrate the Dickinson’s student body, petitioning successfully for his son’s admission as a student in 1886.
The view in the mirror that Dickinson has been holding itself up to isn’t always flattering. But that’s OK, Pinsker said, because it proves at once that the college isn’t afraid of intellectual honesty, or striving for a better future.
“It’s not like we’re displacing (Benjamin) Rush. We’re displacing Cooper (who only served on the Dickinson faculty for four years). And the Pinckney Gate is being named for what was just East College Gate. So it’s diversifying the history, not erasing it. It’s recovering some parts of it that have been lost, but are still important,” Pinsker said.
The newly-highlighted knowledge was inspiring to student Alice Agyekum, a junior from Orange, N.J. who considers herself to be standing on the shoulders of these early Black Dickinsonians, and has great admiration for their perseverance and accomplishments.
“I would not have gotten the chance to be here now without their efforts, so I’m very grateful for those that came before me and making this possible for all of us,” Agyekum said, as she completed the circuit Wednesday afternoon.
Besides their narrative scripts, all of the new markers feature colorized photos and QR codes that walkers can use to link to videos and Web sites with more information about the subjects.
The walking tour is one prong of an effort to take the results of a “Dickinson & Slavery” report released in August 2019 from faculty and students research that spun out of a course on American slavery taught by Pinsker, and spin them forward to create a more enlightened tomorrow.
Other steps, Pinsker said, will include teacher training workshops and, starting later this year, a three-week seminar for low-income high school seniors in the region who will get a chance to experience college life for free and credit for a course derived from the “Dickinson & Slavery” project.
Dickinson officials are not expected, by the way, to change the name of the school or take down the recently-installed statue of Rush. And the college has plenty of people who were on the right side of America’s racial divide, too.
The college’s first president, Charles Nisbet, was a vocal opponent of slavery. So was professor John McClintock, an abolitionist who was linked to an 1847 anti-slavery riot in Carlisle in which Black residents helped to liberate some fugitive slaves that the court had ordered to be turned over to their owners.
The so-called “McClintock Riot” occurred after McClintock complained that the local court was flouting a new state law banning any county official from having a part in the recovery of fugitive slaves.
Moncure Conway, a Virginian and an 1849 Dickinson graduate, was a major agitator for abolition in the pre-Civil War South. James Miller McKim, Class of 1828, headed the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society.
But the school’s leaders do see the ongoing effort, including the new tour, as a way to demonstrate to students, current and future, that the school is an institution that doesn’t shy away from hard facts, and it is also a place where everyone is open to the idea that better ideas may lie in the future and the most important thing is to have the discernment to recognize them
“One of the goals of a walking tour like this is to show that we don’t have to remove statues. Sometimes we just have to understand them in context,” Pinsker said. “So the Rush statue alone, without any discussion of his slave-holding, is problematic. But the Rush statue with a marker that explains his contradictions, to me that’s the right balance...
“I think we’re making the case that you don’t want to judge the past by the present standards, but you also don’t want to ignore the moral failings of the past.”