PEA history in the context of slavery

Principal announces a committee tasked with examining connections between Exeter and the institution of slavery.

William K. Rawson ’71; P’08
January 31, 2020

Dear Exeter Community, 

On Monday I announced an initiative to undertake a thorough examination of our school history for any connections between our school and the institution of slavery. 

I have appointed a steering committee of three persons to develop recommendations for how such a rigorous examination of our past history might be undertaken. They are: 

  • Cameron Brickhouse, Instructor, History Department 
  • Magee Lawhorn, Head of Archives and Special Collections 
  • Kent McConnell, Chair, History Department 

Stephanie Bramlett, Director of Equity and Inclusion, and Claudine Gay, Professor of African and African-American Studies and Edgerley Family Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University, have agreed to serve as advisers to the steering committee. 

The intent is to have an inclusive process that will engage the entire community. Everyone who has an interest is invited to share ideas with the steering committee. 

While the initial focus will be on connections between our school and the institution of slavery, the steering committee is encouraged to think broadly and develop recommendations for such other studies as the committee believes should be undertaken to understand the history and legacy of our school. Such studies might include the history of indigenous populations and study of later periods in our school history for enduring connections to the institution of slavery. 

Published histories of the Academy address these subjects to some degree. For example, a history published in 1924 (Crosbie) documents in some detail John Phillips’ ownership of enslaved persons during a significant part of his life, including the year when the Academy was founded. This fact is addressed more briefly in a 2008 history (Heskel & Dyer) that focused on Exeter after the Harkness gift. We contemplate here a comprehensive inquiry. 

The steering committee is invited to examine the experiences of other educational institutions that have undertaken similar inquiries; to recommend the formation of such committees and task forces as are deemed appropriate to do the work; to consider the use of professional historians or other outside experts to support the effort; and, importantly, to consider ways to involve students in the initiative, whether through formal courses of study or participation in any committees or task forces that might be formed. The steering committee is not being tasked with the development of recommendations for any actions that might be considered based on any findings of the historical research. 

I have discussed this initiative with a number of students who have independently developed an interest in studying connections between slavery and our school, and in studying critical points in our school history, such as the arrival and experiences of the first African-American students at the Academy. I invite the steering committee to consider the best ways to support these independent student initiatives. 

I look forward to a community-wide effort to embrace this undertaking. The work contemplated by this initiative is an important step in our ongoing journey toward creating a more diverse, equitable and inclusive community. Thank you in advance to the colleagues on the steering committee who will lead this effort.