Founding: The Old and New Universities

The University of Chicago likes to say that it was founded in 1890, by John D. Rockefeller and the American Baptist Education Society. This founding date is true, but this was the second time that the university was founded. 


The university had existed once before, as an institution that had been founded in 1856. As a result, there have been two universities in existence: the old university of Chicago, and the new. The “old University of Chicago”’s campus was in Bronzeville. However, it was badly damaged by fire in 1874, and its finances deteriorated rapidly; it was foreclosed upon by its creditors and shut down in 1886. The current university was founded four years later.


The university tends to distance itself from the old campus and institution, writing on its news website that the founding date was 1890. This is due to the fact that the old university was founded on money from a slave plantation. The old university’s campus in Bronzeville was funded by Stephen A. Douglas, who was an Illinois politician and the owner of a Mississippi slave plantation. Douglas was also the first president of the university’s board of trustees. 


There has been controversy over the university’s response to its history. The university has been requested by several activist groups to acknowledge its ties with the old university. The prevailing argument is that the university needs to account for its foundation on money earned from slavery, and pay reparations.


The “new” university’s connection to the older institution is backed by a plethora of historical evidence. The current UChicago’s campus houses this evidence, which takes the form of physical objects across campus. One piece of evidence is a stone from the older university’s campus in Bronzeville— you can walk past it on wall of the arch between Wieboldt Hall and the Classics Building. Another stone visible on campus is in the C bench outside Cobb Hall. The current university of Chicago also gained a large number of its books from the old University’s library. These books are housed in the Regenstein, and have plates 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, which reveal the intentions of its founders. When one of the new university’s founders Thomas Goodspeed wrote to John D. Rockefeller with ideas to open a new university in April 1886, three months before the old University closed, he framed it as plans to reopen the old bankrupted university, rather than create an entirely new one. Goodspeed wrote about having asked [William Rainey] Harper to become president of “our wrecked and ruined University”. 


There is also a bronze bust of Stephen Douglas, the founder of the old university, in Hutchinson commons.



The University championed itself for “being non-denominational from the start”. It was indeed one of the only elite universities that encouraged attendance from both women and minority students. However, the experiences of several students and professors of colour show that despite this professed inclusivity, on a practical level there was still an atmosphere of exclusivity and discrimination.


The Chicago Maroon details several examples; the full article can be found here. These included a female student called Cecilia Johnson, who was Black, and accused in the Chicago Tribune in a 1907 article (by the tip of a fellow student who worked for the paper) of trying to pass as a white student, in order to join a sorority. The experiences of another Black woman, Georgiana Simpson, highlight the fact that integrated housing could often be just on paper- when Simpson tried to move into Green Hall, a woman’s dormitory on campus, her fellow white students complained, and Simpson was made to find off-campus housing by then-President Harry Pratt Judson. This started an unofficial policy that Black students weren’t allowed to live on campus; this policy lived into the 1920s. In 1923, the University, under President Ernest DeWitt Burton, formed committees to decide on housing policy; this led to the admission of Black students back into dorms. 

xr (bbyt)_edited.png