Today, the University of Pennsylvania is one of the wealthiest universities in the United States. However, this was not always the case. In its early days, Penn (then known as the College of Philadelphia) was in financial trouble and needed to raise money to remain solvent. The school’s early administrators traveled to South Carolina and Jamaica to solicit donations from some of the most prominent enslavers in the Atlantic world.
Provost William Smith
William Smith served as Provost from 1755 to 1779 and again from 1789 to 1791. According to Pennsylvania tax records, William Smith owned "1 Negro" in 1769. This finding suggests that Smith, the first Provost of the University of Pennsylvania (the equivalent of a college president) enslaved one person during his first term as Provost.
Tax records from 1769 show that Provost William Smith enslaved a young boy. This enslaved child might have been the first person to greet a visitor to the Provost’s house during the later years of Smith’s term (1755-1779).
In 1771, the academy's trustees decided "that Dr. Smith be desired to take a Journey to the Southern Colonies as far as South Carolina, to sollicit contributions for the use of the College.”
On his fundraising trip to South Carolina, Provost Smith collected donations from 98 of the wealthiest enslavers in South Carolina. By the end of the trip, Provost Smith had collected £7,195 in South Carolina dollars, which equated to £1,027 sterling. The Trustees' minutes list the name of every donor next to the dollar amount of their donation. The list includes the names of many people who were part of the South Carolina elite.
List of South Carolina Donors
Charles Pinckney (1757-1824) was a South Carolinian delegate to the Constitutional Convention. At the convention, he considered it "an agreed point" that Congress would never "touch the question of slavery." He made many contributions to the US Constitution. Most notable was his proposal to add a Fugitive Slave Clause to the nation's founding document. He argued that fugitives from slavery should be "delivered up like criminals." The Clause states that "no person held to service or labour in one state... escaping into another, shall... be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labour may be due." (Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3). Tax records from the period after Pinckney donated to the university, indicate that he owned numerous plantations and enslaved over 150 people.
Jamaican Slave Owner Donations
William Smith was not the only faculty member whom the Trustees sent to collect donations. Dr. John Morgan, a founder of Penn's medical school, traveled to Jamaica to collect donations from the colony's slave traders. Morgan collected donations from 277 people, and his trip was such a success that it nearly quadrupled the amount Smith raised in South Carolina.
Thomas Hibbert (1710-1780) traveled from England to Jamaica to purchase enslaved people off of ships from Africa and resell them to enslavers in Jamaica. He built the famous Hibbert House, a monument to the wealth and power he wielded as the largest slave trader in Jamaica. At Dr. John Morgan's request, Hibbert donated to the university. Almost 50 years after his death, The Hibbert House would serve as a military headquarters for the colonial militia as it strategized to crush a rebellion of enslaved Africans.