History of UChicago

The University of Chicago has been historically unwelcoming to minority groups and students, and has supported racially divisive initiatives on the South Side of Chicago. Some scholars go further and argue that it was founded using money from a slave plantation. The University must become more equitable and accessible for underrepresented students. 

Below is a standing resource detailing what they don't tell you about UChicago's history.


The Founding(s): The Old and New Universities 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

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.

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 present-day value) to build its campus and infrastructure, as well as to give itself a $4 million endowment. 

Some say that this link does not exist. The current University was founded by Rockefeller, an abolitionist, and has no connection to slavery. But there is extensive evidence, in the form of books, legal documents, publications, and faculty and donor testimonials, that connects the two institutions. 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.


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 recognize that “the University of Chicago owes its entire presence to its past with slavery”.

A 2002 Chicago ordinance requires that any organization contracting with the city must disclose historical information regarding any slaves or slaveholders. UChicago, according to RAUC, has not done this. The group demands that the University 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, establishing a department of African American studies, and hiring more faculty of color. 

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 the New University's 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”, including two stones from the old Bronzeville campus, one located on the wall of the arch between Wieboldt Hall and the Classics Building and the other visible 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 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


A bronze bust in honour of Stephen Douglas, donated by the Class of 1901. It resided in Hutchinson Commons until it was removed in June 2020.

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 nearly 7,000 books from the old 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 entire collection of books when the institution folded in 1886, and gave the collection back to the 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 organizers, 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 to create an entirely new one. All the alumni of the Old university were recognized 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 Camp Douglas visible to the right.

Image courtesy of University of Chicago Photographic Archive