Washburn true to abolitionist roots after 148 years

Manisha SinhaWashburn celebrated Founders’ Day on Wednesday with a look back to the era in which the then Lincoln College was founded. On the 148th anniversary of the institution’s charter by the Congregational Church in 1865, renowned Civil War historian Manisha Sinha reminded Washburn of its abolitionist roots. 

Bruce Mactavish, Associate Dean, College of Arts and Sciences, introduced Sinha with reflection on Washburn’s founders. Founders’ Day is an opportunity to “think about where did we start as an institution?” he said. “These are some Americans who took a lot of risk.”

Sinha shared the story of the multiracial struggle for liberty – freedom from slavery and citizenship – for black Americans, and the many lenses with which that struggle was viewed as it happened.

Abolitionists, to some at the time, she said, were radicals, fanatics, even terrorists who caused a bloody war. To others, they were champions of liberty, equality and justice. Abolitionists, she said, believed in citizenship for African Americans as early as the Revolutionary War period and pushed for what became the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Many others were anti-slavery but did not believe voting rights and full citizenship should be granted to blacks. And many, like President Abraham Lincoln, evolved in their position over time.

Many among Washburn University’s founders celebrated Wednesday were active abolitionists. John Ritchie, for example, came to Kansas because he wanted it to become a free state. He later helped blacks settle in the Topeka area by giving them land, Sinha said.

Sinha, a professor of Afro-American studies as the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said she was glad to be on Washburn’s campus “because of its abolitionist roots.” She reminded the audience of more than 100 Wednesday night that Washburn was one of few institutions of higher learning to admit black students from the beginning. “It’s lived up to that history,” she said.

Martha Imparato, special collections librarian and archivist for Mabee Library, said she hopes every student, faculty and staff member knows and appreciates that Washburn was founded by abolitionists and always admitted everyone.

Mactavish agreed. “It’s a complex story that deserves more study.”

Sinha, who has published extensively, also met with students, faculty members and local media during her visit. Over lunch, she encouraged faculty members to “be mindful as academics of issues of race in our classrooms” whether the subject taught is history or accounting. She said it is crucial to confront race and class head on and challenge students to think critically. Remember, she said: “The Western tradition has been multiracial since the West thought of itself as Western.”