Though slaves probably helped build the college that would become the University of Maryland, College Park, the institution was created in part to push Maryland past its reliance on slave labor, according to a study released Friday by history professor Ira Berlin and a group of undergraduate researchers.
The new study gives the university a clearer picture of its origins as it celebrates the 150th anniversary of its opening. It paints a complex portrait of a society that was looking to a future beyond slavery while remaining heavily dependent on it.
Researchers could find no direct evidence that slaves helped build the Maryland Agricultural College, which opened its doors in fall 1859. But the context of the times suggests that slave labor was probably involved, Berlin writes in his introduction.
With the Civil War on the horizon and abolitionist sentiments swelling, however, the college's founders hoped to find alternatives to agricultural economies that had been dependent on slave labor for centuries.
Berlin and his students explored the historical connection between slavery and the founding of the university at the urging of College Park President C. D. "Dan" Mote Jr.
"It's become a big part of finding out the history of our university and the history of civil rights," said Rebekah Kass, a 2009 graduate from Owings Mills who worked on the study.
Researchers hoped to find a "smoking gun" that would link slavery to the construction and founding of the college. But records were wiped out by a fire that swept the campus more than 100 years ago.
Slave labor was so intrinsic to business and construction in the state, however, that the link can be presumed, Berlin writes.
"If buildings were not built by slaves, certainly the bricks used were minted by slaves, or the horses and carts carrying the bricks were driven by slaves, or the fields used for the land were tilled by slaves," he states.
The college's founder, Charles Benedict Calvert, was descended from a line of slave-holding planters, and though he was a Union supporter, he still owned 52 slaves in 1860. The majority of the college's trustees and some of its faculty members also owned slaves.
But Calvert was also a progressive thinker in many ways and yearned to find more efficient farming techniques. He found a kindred spirit in Benjamin Hallowell, a self-taught scientist and abolitionist Quaker. Hallowell became the college's first president on the condition that no slave labor would be used on campus.
"Hallowell's presence at the beginnings of the Maryland Agricultural College indicates that the trustees of the early College not only tolerated free-labor farming practices, but sought to actively encourage them," the report concludes. "If Calvert represented a tepid commitment to slavery, Benjamin Hallowell spoke to a deep commitment to freedom. This dual founding in both slavery and freedom illustrates the Maryland Agricultural College's conflicted origins."
The study also profiles Adam Francis Plummer, a favorite slave of Charles Calvert, as a representative of the many slaves who played integral roles in the state's daily life and commerce.