A new report shows that the slave economy was deeply entrenched in the origins of the University of Maryland, College Park, including enslaved people living and working on land that forms a large section of the current campus.

The three-year analysis found that 52 people were owned by Charles Benedict Calvert, the founder of the Maryland Agricultural College, which eventually became the current university. One of the earliest trustees of Maryland Agricultural College, William Tilghman Goldsborough, enslaved 55 known people, the report found. Goldsborough also held several statewide political offices, and his family was “highly connected.” He married the daughter of the man who enslaved Frederick Douglass, the researchers found.

Although the university was the “genesis of innovative ideas,” it still was problematic in that “it was birthed with deep ties to the system of African bondage in the colonies, as can be witnessed through the very lives of the institution’s earliest presidents,” researchers wrote.

A group of researchers and staff members at the state’s flagship university, working on what is known as the 1856 Project, outlined how the university benefitted from slavery in a 52-page analysis, “Reconstructing the Truth,” with $900,000 in funding from the university’s first Black president, Darryll Pines.

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“The 1856 Project is the latest effort to acknowledge where the university has fallen short in the past while also mapping a course fearlessly forward together for our future,” Pines said in a video made for the project.

Inspired by former graduate student Herbert Brewer and Professor Ira Berlin, who developed and taught a history course on the subject in 2006, the committee now wants to continue to educate the public about the findings and also repair damage done to the descendants of enslaved people associated with the university and Black communities near the university. Further work is needed to determine how that would be done.

“In all honesty, some of this information has been out in the ether,” said the project’s co-chair, Lae’l Hughes-Watkins, an associate director of engagement, inclusion and reparative archiving at the university. “It was this project that pulled those threads together. That provided a broader understanding. We didn’t have the mechanism to pull this information to understand what our university’s history has been.”

On the heels of the national racial reckoning following the death of George Floyd in police custody, the University of Maryland College Park is the latest university across the country to acknowledge its ties to the slave economy. And many of these acknowledgements have occurred at schools in the Mid-Atlantic region, once a center for the transatlantic slave trade.

In January, a 12-person task force at Loyola University Maryland released a 27-page report looking into how the Jesuit college benefited from the sale of enslaved Black people in 1838. In 2019, The Reconciliation Fund, which was inspired by a student referendum, was launched at Georgetown University. The fund, which receives $27.20 from each student in fees, awards $400,000 annually to community-based projects that have “direct impact on Descendant communities whose ancestors were once enslaved on the Maryland Jesuit plantations,” according to Georgetown University. And in 2020, the Johns Hopkins University acknowledged that its founder and benefactor, Johns Hopkins, owned slaves until the mid-1800s.

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The discussions surrounding race after Floyd’s death opened some of the universities up for addressing and reckoning, said Dr. Raymond Winbush, research professor and director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University.

“I think white America is just awakening to the complicities of many of its institutions,” he said. “But Black scholars have known this for years.”

But Winbush said these institutions need to atone for past research that helped to justify slavery and paint Black people with the broad strokes of inferiority.

“I think many of these universities need to liberate” this “negative” and “racist” work, he said.

As these histories are uprooted it is raising questions about whether and how Black Americans should be compensated for slavery and the centuries of discriminatory practices that followed — from segregation and Jim Crow to urban renewal and inequitable laws.

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“It is time to wrestle with the ghosts of the past. Universities no longer have the space or ability to deny the past,” said Karsonya “Kaye” Wise Whitehead, a professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola.

Whitehead, who was part of Loyola’s effort, doesn’t want the conversation to stop with research and will host an event Tuesday evening at Loyola focused on reading slave narratives, reflecting on the actions of the university, Johns Hopkins and University of Maryland.

“An apology is only the beginning,” she said. “It’s almost baby steps in this process. Now it is time for them run like adults. We need to look at what reparation, restoration and repair look like — and not just to the descendants, but the Black communities that are in and around your institution.”

Even though its first president, Benjamin Hallowell, opposed using slave labor at the college — going as far as making that a condition of his employment — following presidents at the University of Maryland did not. During the first 20 years of the existence of the college, several of its presidents were ranking officers with the Confederate States or sympathetic to and supported Confederates, according to the report.

Other findings include:

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  • The site of the current Xfinity Center, where tens of thousands come to watch the the Terps basketball team play each year, was once a plantation established in 1820 by John Eversfield, a British ordained priest affiliated with the university. His plantation was adjacent to the Riversdale plantation of Charles Benedict Calvert, part of which later became the Maryland Agriculture College in 1856. Both of these plantation owners were enslavers.
  • Using Prince George’s County Slave Statistics of 1870, the researchers found that more than 500 enslaved Black people lived on land that became Maryland Agricultural College.
Lae’l Hughes-Watkins, an associate director of engagement, inclusion and reparative archiving at the University of Maryland, College Park. (Courtesy of Jared Soares)
  • The land that comprises the campus of the university was “an important Underground Railroad route in the 1840s and 1850s,” the report said. “Historical evidence and narratives confirm that Black freedom seekers regularly used nearby roads and found refuge in local wooded areas, often relying on kin and friends to abscond through the countryside.”

To further educate the public, 1856 members said, the committee will publish two more annual research reports, planned for each February, and a book on their findings.

In preparation for the United States celebrating its semiquincentennial in 2026, The 1856 Project plans to spend the next two years further telling truths about its origins, including researching the identification of all enslaved people who lived on the land that now comprises the university, according to Hughes-Watkins.

Also, in 2026, the University of Maryland will host the Universities Studying Slavery Conference, a three-day event of historians, scholars, archivists and students, according to the report.

The 1856 Project is also awaiting word back from the Mellon Foundation on a possible $200,000 research grant to partner with local community organizations and historically Black communities.

Carl Snowden, the former civil rights director for the Office of the Maryland Attorney General, said he was “absolutely delighted that they are acknowledging that many of these institutions were built off the backs of slaves.”

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He also said that the report does “not go far enough.”

“Once you acknowledge the problem, then you have to be proactive and propose solutions to those problems,” he said. “These institutions were created to help the descendants of the slave masters. What will these institutions do to acknowledge and help the descendants of the oppressed beyond acknowledging the role that these enslaved people played in the building of these institutions?”

Snowden, based in Annapolis and actively fighting for reparations in Maryland, recommends forming another commission to better address and implement next steps that he said should range from reparations through academic scholarships to better teaching accurate Black history.

Hughes-Watkins understands the frustrations of Snowden and others who may think that the research is not enough.

“We are just getting out the gate,” she said. “To do thoughtful work, we’ll need more financial support. This work cannot happen overnight. We ask that people are patient with us.”

Hughes-Watkins welcomes community members to participate in future work with the project.

“These voices need to be brought to the table as well so that we can begin healing and repair and so that we can do restorative justice,” she said.

This story was updated to correct the spelling of Darryll Pines, the president of the University of Maryland at College Park.