Discovering the Real Legacy of Slavery at Franklin & Marshall College

The two namesakes of Franklin & Marshall College were both enslavers. The statues of John Marshall (right) and Benjamin Franklin (left) were wrapped in tarps after being vandalized in 2021. source: WGAL

Guest contributor: Kayla Reed*

The way I began my research into “The ‘Real’ Legacy of Slavery at Franklin & Marshall College” is an interesting story. Around this time last year, I was a junior at F&M, which is located in Lancaster, PA. I was sitting in a CVS pharmacy with a friend who worked there, when I met a member of the African American Historical Society of South Central Pennsylvania (AAHSSPA). After helping the member of AAHSSPA take a photo, we got on the topic of my college major and what I wanted to do with it. He was interested in bringing students from F&M to help with local history projects and told me to contact Dr. Gretchel Hathaway, the vice president of diversity, equity, and inclusion at F&M. I emailed her the next day and we met within the week to talk about the potential of working with both AAHSSPA and the F&M Legacy of the Slavery Study Group, in which I had already taken great interest. We both agreed that I would be the perfect fit for a student perspective on the study group, so Dr. Hathaway arranged for me to meet with the other members.

When I met with the committee, I noticed we were focused solely on our college’s founders [F&M was founded in 1787 — eds.]. While it is essential to know the effects our founders had on the institution, slavery was still going on long after our founders passed away. I wanted to learn about how the students, faculty, and Lancaster community dealt with slavery head-on. I also wanted to assess the scholarly literature produced by and about our institution. I tried to critique our research to see what we were missing and give an honest review of the legacy of slavery, hence the name of my study: “The ‘Real’ Legacy of Slavery at F&M.”

Initially, I believed my institution would have been the center of an intense anti-slavery movement, especially since Pennsylvania is such a “blue state” today. Thus, I began my research with Thaddeus Stevens, one of the most famous abolitionists of the North. I wanted to find a connection between Stevens (who lived in Lancaster) and F&M. While I couldn’t find a direct link between the two, I did learn that one of Stevens’s major political rivals was President James Buchanan, a pro-slavery politician— who was also the first head of the F&M board of trustees at its founding.

Buchanan was heavily involved in F&M. There were numerous reports in the archive of the college supporting his ideals, even sponsoring a trip to the White House for students to celebrate his 1857 inauguration. As I thought about Buchanan’s pro-slavery stance, I dove deeper into campus life during Buchanan’s time as a trustee.

By combing through our archives, old budget requests, and student diaries, I was able to uncover the heavy Southern connections that F&M alumni had—some even ended up fighting for the South during the Civil War. I also delved into the legacy of one of our first campus presidents, John Nevin, whose writings and political career reflected his own inner turmoil as he simultaneously denounced slavery, but appeared to entertain the company of pro-slavery politicians like James Buchanan. I was originally looking to put the research of the F&M Legacy of Slavery Study Group in perspective, by looking beyond the founders, but I ended up down a rabbit hole, discovering the complicated relationship that F&M had and will always have to American slavery.

I would not have been able to complete my research without the support of my advisor, Prof. Van Gosse; Dr. Hathaway; Ryan Nadeau, Research and Student Success Librarian; and the whole Legacy of Slavery Study Group, This research has allowed me to explore my interest in investigating our college’s history and the lasting impact that the history has had on the community. Reflection is always crucial to moving forward, and I hope to do more work that does that in the future.

The Franklin & Marshall College Legacy of Slavery Report can be viewed here.

*Kayla Reed is a senior at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, majoring in classical societies and history. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Franklin & Marshall College, CIC, or anyone other than the author.