University of Cincinnati Researchers to Study School's Connection to Slavery

As it approaches its 2019 bicentennial, UC will delve into ways the school's history is connected to America's legacy of slavery

Aug 28, 2018 at 2:34 pm
University of Cincinnati's McMicken Hall - Provided
University of Cincinnati's McMicken Hall

The University of Cincinnati, today one of the city's largest employers and one of Ohio's most prominent state universities, didn't come into existence until five years after the Civil War ended and enslaved African-Americans were emancipated. But its history goes back earlier than its official 1870 birthday — and so does its connection with America's legacy of slavery. In fact, the university owes its existence to a slave owner in some profound ways.

Now, researchers will find out more about that connection and others. University of Cincinnati Provost Kristi A. Nelson announced Aug. 21 that UC would join more than 40 other institutions of higher education as a member of Universities Studying Slavery. The group, which was founded at the University of Virginia, works to better understand the relationship between some of America's most respected and well-established institutions — its colleges and universities — and the system of forced labor that existed throughout the southern United States in the 19th century.

There will be plenty to unravel at UC in that regard. The university exists due to Charles McMicken, for whom UC's McMicken Hall is named.

McMicken was a wealthy landowner in Cincinnati who also owned several plantations in Louisiana using slave labor. He is even suspected of fathering children with his slaves — the subject of this Cincinnati Magazine story by former UC spokesman Greg Hand.  McMicken's will freed his slaves upon his death.

Upon his death from pneumonia in 1858, McMicken bequeathed land worth roughly $1 million to the City of Cincinnati so that a college "for white boys and girls" could be established. That land, and other provisions of his will, were held up in court for several years. The Ohio State Legislature granted Cincinnati the right to establish its municipal university 12 years later, after emancipation, and the university never expressly forbade black students as McMicken seemed to suggest. It would take until 1886, however, for UC to see its first black graduate, a man named Henry Malachi Griffin.

As it grew, UC absorbed other schools, including the Medical College of Ohio, which was founded in 1819. That's the date UC will celebrate next year as its bicentennial. The coming 200-year milestone has triggered the effort to research the school's connection with slavery.

As a first move, UC has established the Research Panel on University-City Relations to examine contributions made by enslaved people to UC. Associate Dean of Humanities David Stradling will chair the 16-member panel, which will also include former spokesman Hand, a prolific writer and researcher of local history. In addition to historical research, the panel will take special interest in the ways in which UC serves African-Americans in the surrounding community, according to a UC news release. While Cincinnati is roughly 45 percent black, African-Americans comprise just 8.4 percent of UC's student enrollment, according to statistics provided by the university. Overall, UC's minority enrollment is 21 percent.

"As the university approaches its bicentennial, this work will support UC’s mission as a comprehensive urban public research institution by addressing both historical and contemporary issues dealing with race and inequality in higher education and in university communities," Provost Nelson said in a statement. "The Research Panel on University-City Relations will also engage scholars to undertake a broad examination of UC’s relationship with the City of Cincinnati, and its African -American community, to strengthen community partnerships and explore how inclusion can be activated in more innovative and impactful ways."