‘Our Founders Owned Slaves’: New Research Sparks Demands For Change At William Jewell College
At the liberal arts college in Liberty, Missouri, a group of researchers called the Slavery, Memory and Justice Project has caused a reckoning with the college's past.
A group of student, faculty and alumni researchers at William Jewell College is investigating a neglected piece of its history: its founders’ connections to slavery.
The liberal arts college was founded in Liberty, Missouri, in 1849 — years before the Civil War ended slavery. But across three official histories of William Jewell College, iterations of the word “slavery” only appear five times.
Yet here’s the reality members of the Slavery, Memory and Justice Project discovered:
- 90% of the college’s 33 trustees from 1849-50 — who helped found and fund William Jewell — profited directly from slavery, enslaving a combined total of at least 307 people.
- About 79% of trustees who joined between 1851 and 1865 profited directly from slavery, enslaving at least 153 people.
- Alexander Doniphan — a legendary Clay Countian and college founder — was deeply pro-slavery and supported a bill that would penalize public abolitionist advocacy with a jail sentence.
- The story that Dr. William Jewell freed all his slaves upon his death isn’t true.
- Enslaved people contributed to building Jewell Hall.
The ongoing research project has drawn attention from other alumni and helped spark a separate investigation by Jewell’s administration.
Project participants hope it will provide a more complete story of the college’s founding — including recognizing the enslaved people who generated wealth used to found the school — and will lead to concrete actions to respond to the findings.
“I would really hope that the college doesn’t try to sweep this under the rug,” said Hayley Michael, a senior history and political science major and member of the project.
“I think that the college should own up to it and say, ‘Yes, our founders owned slaves. The students that came here owned slaves. Students that came here fought for the Confederacy, which stood for slavery, essentially.’ And I think that they should just recognize that flawed history.”
Rodney Smith, the college’s new vice president for access and engagement, agreed, adding that future students of color would appreciate transparency.
“Those students will come here, and they’ll hear this kind of information through the grapevine,” he said. “Why don’t we share with them this truth as opposed to trying to run from it and hide from it?”
Discovering the history of slavery and William Jewell
Christopher Wilkins, a professor of history at William Jewell, launched the project in fall 2020 after last summer’s historic protests for racial justice. Wilkins, who is white, asked himself what he was doing to promote causes he cared about.
“I also thought about how American society would be better — less racist, more concerned with social justice, more committed to being honest about our history in general — if more Americans grasped just how brutal and deeply entrenched American slavery was,” he said.
Wilkins and students in his fall and spring research classes started work on the project.
Sources included thousands of pages of federal census records, as well as newspapers, financial records, wills, voting records, state laws, letters and diaries, enslaved person narratives, theological works, farming manuals, court records, and military records, Wilkins said.
One student, Christian Santiago, drove to Boone County to search the historical society’s archives for information about Dr. William Jewell, the college’s namesake.
There, he read Jewell’s will and found that, contrary to the accepted narrative, Jewell had not freed all of his remaining enslaved people upon his death. One woman, Ellen, was only to be freed upon specific conditions. Jewell’s will explained she was “incapable of taking care of herself in a state of freedom.”
“For him to make this decision on her behalf is a very paternalistic view of things, and certainly not his decision to make,” said Santiago, who is white and of Latino/Puerto Rican ethnicity.
He was surprised by how ambiguous a figure Jewell seemed to be — a slave owner who had some abolitionist impulses, such as freeing most of the people he enslaved by the time of his death. But Jewell was unwilling to go as far as some of his contemporaries.
The students eventually presented their research at a William Jewell College undergraduate research colloquium and in four articles — covering the school’s founders and early trustees, Alexander Doniphan, Jewell himself and Clay County — for the Hilltop Monitor, the college’s online student publication.
Several more students and alumni have since joined the project, Wilkins said, and some continued to meet over the summer.
Recent findings have included discovering the names of more than 100 people enslaved by William Jewell founders and early trustees and finding evidence enslaved people were involved in building Jewell Hall, Wilkins said.
Researchers are also investigating how William Jewell students were involved with slavery and in the Civil War.
How college leadership is addressing slavery discoveries
As the Slavery, Memory and Justice Project prepared to publish its findings, William Jewell College launched its own response to the impending revelations — the Racial Reconciliation Commission.
Headed by Smith, the first Black member of the college’s cabinet, the commission set an ambitious goal of reviewing William Jewell’s entire history within a year and then recommending action steps to the president.
“It says a lot about the individuals and the institution that it would go down this path of discovery, willing perhaps to find out some things that, in years past, it wouldn’t want to have found out,” said Smith, who was hired in 2020.
Smith said the commission, which includes students, faculty, trustees, administrative, alumni and other community members, is already rethinking the one year timeframe because there is so much to investigate in the college’s nearly 175-year history.
Wilkins, who is listed as an advisor to the commission, said his inclusion is not accurate. He declined the invitation to join because he wanted to focus on the Slavery, Memory and Justice Project.
Michael, who is white, is a student member of the commission. She said she was initially thrilled to join but has pushed for the commission to last longer than a year.
Based on what other schools have done, “it takes about three years, sometimes even more,” Michael said. “And that’s just (to research) slavery.”
How alumni are responding
Some members of the broader William Jewell community have joined the project, spending hours helping with the research.
Michelle Cook, a white William Jewell alumna, said she spends as much or more time on historical research as she does on her full-time job teaching music lessons.
She’s using the skills she learned while researching the backgrounds of people buried in local cemeteries who didn’t have thorough records kept about them. Knowing where to find documents has helped her discover the names and stories of enslaved people.
“We cannot forget how connected we are through time and space,” she said. “And those stories are as impactful and matter as much today as they ever did.”
Dylan Jones, a 2018 William Jewell graduate, said he spends one to two hours a day on the project despite also having a full-time job and working on an online graduate certificate. Jones is white.
But Michael and Smith both said not all alumni have been supportive of the investigations, with some questioning why the college is digging into the past.
“As long as we believe what we’re doing is right, and that we’re doing it ethically, we’re doing it in the most historically accurate way, we’re just going to keep on chugging along,” Michael said.
The case for honesty
As a more complete understanding of William Jewell’s history emerges, both the Slavery, Memory and Justice Project and the college’s administration expect to come up with concrete ideas to address the findings.
“Certainly information needs some kind of action with it,” said Andy Pratt, dean emeritus of the chapel at William Jewell and an advisor on diversity issues, who is white. “It’s not just information for information’s sake.”
Some specific ideas are starting to emerge.
The college has made a concerted effort to increase its diversity, using scholarships and outreach to encourage more people of color to attend, said Pratt, who served for years as the vice president for diversity and inclusion.
According to William Jewell, the percentage of students of color and nonresident students rose from 6% in 2001 to 26.7% in 2020. Nonresident students are not U.S. citizens and are here with a visa or on a temporary basis. They can include white students, according to the university.
But alumnus Steve Harris said there is still more work to do for the college’s demographics to match those of college-age people nationally, especially as the nation’s younger population is becoming more diverse. There is no majority race for people in the U.S. under 18, according to census data.
Harris, who lives in Georgia, is a member of the Jewell Radical Inclusivity Alumni Council and was one of a small number of African American students at William Jewell when he attended college in the ’80s. He also taught in the education department from 2005-07.
He suggested the college should examine its approach toward students and faculty of color.
Jones, one of the alumni helping with research, suggested the college should follow the lead of George Mason University, where he attended graduate school and is currently doing an online certification. This year, George Mason is installing a memorial recognizing the contributions of enslaved people.
Michael, the student whose research focused on Doniphan, the influential college founder, said the college should rename the Doniphan Leadership Institute and the Doniphan Award for the senior man most likely to succeed.
Doniphan was instrumental in ensuring William Jewell College was located in Liberty, using his speaking skills and $7,000 raised from Clay County donors to secure support, according to the Hilltop Monitor article Michael wrote with other students.
He is known for his support of the Union during the Civil War, his military leadership during the Mexican American War, and saving Joseph Smith and other Mormons from execution for treason. But he was also a slave owner and strong opponent of abolition as a legislator and director of the Clay County Pro-Slavery Society.
“If he was such a great leader, and if he was so known for his oration skills, why didn’t he use those for good?” Michael asked. “Instead, he used those to convince people that slavery was OK.”
Harris agreed the college should not name anything in Doniphan’s honor.
“There’s already enough research on Alexander Doniphan that that decision can be made,” he said. “Once you have the information to do better, do better.”
This story was originally published on the Kansas City Beacon.