The History of the University of Chicago

Below is a standing resource detailing UChicago's history. 

The Founding(s): The Old and New Universities of Chicago

All official university sources maintain that the University of Chicago came to being in 1890, when it was founded by John D. Rockefeller and the American Baptist Education Society and took William Rainey Harper as its first president. No official university source mentions that this was the second time that the university was founded. Before the current university, there existed an institution founded in 1856, that is now called the “Old University of Chicago”. The Old University of Chicago’s campus was in the city's Bronzeville district, but the university was badly damaged by fire in 1874; it was foreclosed upon by its creditors and forced to shut down in 1886. The current University of Chicago, as it stands today in Hyde Park, was founded four years later. However, despite sharing a name and numerous other assets, the current university maintains that the two institutions are completely separate. In 2017, a university spokesperson told the Maroon that “the current University of Chicago, founded in 1890, had no financial or legal relationship with the ‘first’ University of Chicago.”

The Old University of Chicago

It was established in 1856, on ten acres of land donated by Senator Stephen A. Douglas.

Image courtesy of University of Chicago Photographic Archive

There is an argument that the current University of Chicago has carefully kept this strict distance from its pre-Civil War predecessor for a reason: the older institution was founded on money that came from a slave plantation. The institution began on 10 acres of land donated by Mississippi slave-holder Stephen A. Douglas, whose bronze portrait hangs in the current UChicago’s Hutchinson Commons. Douglas was the founder of the Old University and the first president of the university’s board of trustees. In a report on the conditions of his slave plantation, published in 1858, the Chicago Press and Tribune described Douglas’ treatment of his slaves as “inhuman and disgraceful”. The Old University of Chicago leveraged the land donated by Douglas and borrowed $6 million dollars (in today’s value) to build its campus and infrastructure such as its wide reaching donor network, as well as to give itself a $4 million endowment. 

The opposing argument is that this link as alleged does not exist. The current university to was founded by Rockefeller, an abolitionist, and had no connection to slavery. But there is extensive evidence that connects the two institutions. A transfer of books, legal documents and publications, as well as faculty and donors, make up this connection. In his book, The University of Chicago: A History, Dean John Boyer makes a strong case for a connection between the Old University and the new, saying that the current university has “a plausible genealogy as a pre-Civil War institution”- aka, the Old University from 1856. However, it’s not clear whether or not Boyer agrees with the position taken by RAUC.

Members of Reparations at UChicago Working Group at a racial justice rally in October 2017.

Image courtesy of the Chicago Maroon

The current university’s refusal to accept its ties to the past has drawn outcry from the Reparations at UChicago Working Group (RAUC), which is made up of students and professors at UChicago. The RAUC campaign has been lobbying for UChicago to recognise that “the University of Chicago owes its entire presence to its past with slavery”. The group demands that the current UChicago change its official founding date to 1856 in acceptance of its ties with the old institution, and try to atone for its past with slavery by paying reparations to the descendants of slaves and establishing a department of African American studies, as well as hiring more faculty of colour. 

In April 2019, Regenstein librarians Anne Knafl and Nancy Spiegel curated and held an exhibit that presented manuscripts, publications and legal documents that highlighted the connections between the Old and new University of Chicago. Physical evidence around campus also highlights the extensive connection between the two institutions. A page on the Regenstein’s website lists evidence of the “Old University on campus”: one example is a stone from the older university’s campus in Bronzeville, which you can see on the wall of the arch between Wieboldt Hall and the Classics Building. Another stone visible on campus is in the C bench outside Cobb Hall. There is also a bronze plaque of plantation owner Stephen A. Douglas in Hutchinson commons, donated by the Class of 1901. 

A bronze bust in honour of Stephen Douglas; it was donated by the Class of 1901, and resides in Hutchinson Commons

Image courtesy of the Regenstein Library

A stone from the Old University, now located in between Wieboldt Hall and the Classics Building

Image Courtesy of the Regenstein Library

A stone in the form of an arrow from the Old University, now found in front of the "C" bench outside Cobb Hall

Image courtesy of the Regenstein Library

The current university of Chicago also gained a large number of its books from the old University’s library. Knafl and Spiegel have traced the exchange of books nearly 7000 books from the old university library to the new, arguing that this highlights the “interconnectedness of Old and New”. They provide an example of an “Old” university trustee, John A. Reichelt, who bought the old university’s entire collection of books when the institution folded in 1886, and gave the collection back to the new university. New university attempts to de-link the two institutions can be seen by how Mr. Reichelt was described as the new UChicago’s “first ‘benefactor’”; Knafl and Spiegel dismiss this label, saying that it obscures the interconnectedness and that Reichelt was an old trustee who acted to safeguard the university’s assets during the difficult times, with the ultimate aim of returning the books to their original owner. These books are now housed in the Regenstein, and some of them have their original bookplates inside their covers that record their provenance from the old library.

The current university of Chicago can also be connected to its past through old letters and early quotes from university organisers, which reveal the intentions of its founders as well as the transfer of members between the Old and new institutions. William Rainey Harper, the new university’s first president, was described by one of the new university’s founders as “assum[ing] the Presidency of our wrecked and ruined University”. Some argue that this framed the opening of the new institution as plans to reopen the old bankrupted university, rather than create an entirely new one. All the alumni of the Old university were recognised by the new institution, and these alumni, along with donors and trustees of the Old University, gave money to the new UChicago. The library has also collected pictures of the Old university, which includes a drawing of its campus that depicts Camp Douglas, a northern Civil war prison that was run concurrently with the university.

A drawing of the Old University campus, with Campus Douglas visible to the right.

Image courtesy of University of Chicago Photographic Archive 

xr (bbyt)_edited.png