Goucher College to remove racist language in land deed, recognize slavery’s legacy on campus

When Goucher College purchased 421 acres of land for about $150,000 nearly a century ago, the family selling the land inserted a clause into the deed of sale that the college is now removing.

“No part of said land or premises shall ever be leased, sold, transferred to or occupied by any person of the African Race,” the deed of sale, dated 1921, stipulates.


In September, just short of 100 years after the land was purchased from the Chew family — descendants through marriage of former Maryland Gov. Charles Carnan Ridgely, a slave owner — the Goucher College Board of Trustees unanimously voted to strike the racist language from the land deed. The document was filed with the Baltimore County Circuit Court on Oct. 9.

Striking the language is the college’s first step in “The Hallowed Ground Project,” an initiative announced Wednesday. School officials said the project’s goal is to “recognize the role of slavery and racism in the history of the land the college currently occupies.”

Goucher’s president, Kent Devereaux, started at the school in July. Before that he had lived in New Hampshire, Chicago, Seattle and California. When he started at the college, he recognized it was the first time he had lived in an area that could be considered part of the southern United States.

With that realization, Devereaux said, he knew he wanted to expand on the work of James Dator, an assistant professor of history at Goucher who studies slavery. Devereaux wanted “concrete” things the school could do, rather than talk itself in circles about its legacy connected to slavery.

“We’ve been doing a lot of work the last three months,” Devereaux said. “Right from the start it’s been something we’ve wanted to do since I got here.”

Devereaux said all Americans have an obligation to reckon with the history of slavery in the United States.

“We have people who will say, ‘Well, I have nothing to do with that past.’ But if you are an American, it is a part of your shared history,” he said.

Goucher College was founded in 1885 — about 20 years after slavery was abolished in the United States — as Woman’s College of Baltimore City. It was renamed Goucher College in 1910, for the Methodist pastor and his wife, John Franklin Goucher and Mary Fisher Goucher, who deeded the college the land for its original downtown campus.

In 1954, the college moved its campus to the former Chew family land in Towson. The land, along with 20 enslaved men, women and children, had been bequeathed to Henry B. and Harriet Ridgely Chew, the son-in-law and daughter of former Gov. Ridgely, when he died in 1829.

The school’s history is not without complications when it comes to issues of race.

Goucher College was never formally segregated by race, but did not see a black student graduate from the school until 1960, when Marguerite Barland, a chemistry major, finished her degree. Barland died in 2002.

In 1999, a group of students called attention to a racist sign found on campus, by staging a segregated lunch. Students at the time said they “could have had a rally or a discussion,” but “wanted to do something different.” Organizers said the lunch, which included separate silverware, separate lunch lines and separate tables, “challenged a lot of people," according to Baltimore Sun archives.

Just last year, more than 100 black students protested after someone drew a swastika and wrote a racist threat in a dorm bathroom, mentioning the numbers of three dorms that housed African-American students.

Today, college officials said about 38% of students self-identify as people of color, with about 24% of students identifying as Black or African-American. The school has a Center for Race, Equity and Identity that provides resources, advocacy and programming to support students of color.


Dator, the Goucher professor who is chairing “The Hallowed Ground Project,” said it was spurred in part from general public conversations around the roots of slavery in the United States and because of student interest.

"Students began to ask questions, they really had a lot of interest and desire to tell these stories,” Dator said.

Dator said he hopes to teach classes next year where students focus on researching documents and understanding the history of what happened on the land where Goucher now sits. He envisions the project on a three-to-five year timeline, with the first few years dedicated to research, and the latter part geared toward presenting the findings and telling the land’s history.

Some specifics are still being worked out, but the college has said it plans to hire a visiting professor to start in the summer on a two-year archaeological project on the campus grounds, studying the history of slavery. Goucher officials are also considering public lectures and permanent exhibitions, as well as constructing a memorial to the enslaved people who once worked on the land.

“I’m kind of curious where the research will ultimately end up," Devereaux said. “It could be an exhibition, it could be a traveling exhibition, it could be an augmented reality walking tour of the campus if we find interesting things.”

The history department at Goucher is planning to acquire “a large volume” of digitized Chew family letters from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania to gain a deeper understanding of the history of slavery on the land where Goucher now sits. Dator said the records would be acquired in batches, with the first round costing about $1,000 for the school to acquire.

An archivist from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania said in an email that they possess a collection of account books, diaries and journals connected to Henry Chew, all which document the farm and its laborers, mostly slaves.

The materials in the collection would allow someone to learn things about “if not the individual slaves themselves, then [about] what life may have been like for them on this particular farm,” the archivist, Cary Hutto, wrote.

Dator said the project is one of “reclamation.” He wants everyone on campus or visiting campus to understand the history of the land and the project to focus on telling the stories of the enslaved people.

“That takes a lot of work, it can be difficult to do that,” Dator said, because the letters and other documents might only contain “snippets of stories” relating to the enslaved.

“It’s a complicated and difficult story. It’s hard to write the history of slavery from the enslaved peoples’ perspective,” Dator said, adding he wants "to be honest about what we can’t uncover.”


The school was able to amend the wording in its deed, officials said, because of a state law passed in 2018. That same law allowed the Rodgers Forge community in Towson to scrub racist language from its land records earlier this year.

For Devereaux, the project is about dealing with “the awful scar of slavery” in the United States, learning about the injustices and turning it into a teaching moment.

“History is not just one story, that history is not simple platitudes,” he said. “The slaves that were enslaved on this land were real people, who had real lives, and they have descendants.”