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Spring History Class Draws Connection Between Trump, Slavery

Photo by Gage Skidmore

In a move that caused controversy among some conservatives, a Loyola history professor amended his course about slavery to include what he calls the racist rhetoric of President-elect Donald J. Trump.

The course — a special topics history class that is being offered during the spring 2017 semester titled Slavery and Abolition: Then and Now — is expected to be taught by associate history professor John Donoghue.

Special topics courses are electives that focus on a unique subject matter or try new ways to teach material “of current interest to the instructor,” according to LOCUS.

Donoghue has taught the class three times before and said what’s new for the spring semester is that his course will now focus its last third on the legacy of slavery and abolition for African-Americans today.

Therefore, he said it would be incomplete to teach about that legacy without mentioning what he called Trump’s active stoking of racial tensions during his run for office.

“Donald Trump is not the main feature of the course,” said Donoghue. “But, not to mention Donald Trump’s name in a course on slavery and race in 2017 would be me ignoring the relevance … in our own times.”

Some of Trump’s controversies regarding race relations include when he said African-Americans were “living in hell” during the first presidential debate in September and when he made his pitch to black voters by asking them what they had to lose by voting for him at a speech in August.

He has been endorsed by numerous white supremacist groups and has appointed Steve Bannon, head of one of the top alt-right news sites Breitbart and backed by white nationalists, as his chief strategist.

Professor John Donoghue
Professor John Donoghue

The final say on a course’s curriculum is usually left up to the professor teaching it, and professors often shift course curriculums slightly from year to year, according to Donoghue.

Donoghue said the goal of his course is “to introduce the students to the history of slavery as a global phenomenon that stretches back into antiquity.”

The curriculum, Donoghue said, traces the international and global history of slavery, starting in the classical period, then moving through the early-modern and European colonization periods to slavery, abolition and its aftermath in the United States.

When teaching about slavery in the United States, Donoghue said it’s important to point out that the nation’s racially based system was a historic exception.

“Racialized slavery … in the United States … [is] the atypical form of slavery in the long global history of slavery,” Donoghue said. “It’s also the most lethal and leaves the longest malignant cultural legacy.”

Slavery’s lasting impact is problematic for African-Americans today, according to Donoghue.

“The history of forced bondage in the United States, unfortunately, does not end with the Thirteenth Amendment,” said Donoghue.

The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution abolished slavery in every state in the nation in 1865.

Keesha Whitely Moliere, the vice president of the Black Cultural Center (BCC) and a 20-year-old junior at Loyola, said BCC was actively promoting the course to students by putting up fliers in the BCC room in Damen and in the Student Diversity and Multicultural Affairs (SDMA) office so that the course would have enough enrollment to be held in the spring.

“We basically tried to encourage as many students as possible to take [the class],” the psychology major said, “and I think it’s gotten a pretty good response, like I’ve heard a lot of students are interested in taking it.”

According to the Slavery and Abolition course description on LOCUS, the class has 28 students enrolled out of 60 available seats. In past years, the course has capped the number of students at around 30 or 40, according to Donoghue.

The 60 spots this time around were offered with the hopes of attracting more students to take history electives, according to Donoghue.

Moliere said she thinks it’s appropriate that Trump is covered in the course.

“In a sense, yes, [it’s appropriate] because you’re kind of seeing, with Trump, history being repeated,” Moliere said, referring to what she called Trump’s appeal to white, low-class voters.

Some conservative students on campus disagree. First-year Reid Willis, for example, said he think it’s unfair to include Trump in a history class on slavery.

“It’s a bit ridiculous, frankly,” said the 19-year-old political science and history double major. “My opinion with history is that if it has happened within the last 20 years you should not be discussing it in history class, you should be discussing it in a politics class or a current events class.”

Willis said if Donoghue addresses Trump within a larger context of the legacy of slavery and racism then he’d be more open to a conversation, but that it seems Donoghue’s being biased and targeting Trump specifically.

“It’s like he’s picking out Donald Trump because he disagrees with his political views, and that is certainly where I would draw the line,” Willis said. “I see what he’s getting at, but I still think that it’s inappropriate, just for the fact that he’s not even president yet. As many people are saying, give him time to actually do his policies.”

Junior Mary Eisenhauer, 21, said she thinks this move by Donoghue will only divide students and goes against Loyola’s Jesuit mission to build community.

“I don’t believe it’s the right thing to do. I think it’s going to give students … a false justification to their fear of this candidate they don’t know much about,” the nursing major said. “It’s a dividing line, and I don’t believe any university that calls itself Catholic should be doing that.”

Moliere, on the other hand, said she thinks the fact that Loyola offers the course shows the university’s dedication to its Jesuit ideals.

“[Loyola’s] following its own mission [of social justice],” said Moliere. “[It’s] appropriate for them to follow, especially because they have such a marginalized community of black students here that it’s important to talk about these type of things.”

Donoghue said the negative feedback he has received about his changes to the course makes him more sad than angry. Despite the backlash, he said he believes strongly in the merit of his course.

“I am quite confident in the scholarly integrity of making my course relevant to what our students are experiencing,” said Donoghue. “A lot of people will see that as politicized. I just see it as paying attention to what’s happening.”

Donoghue’s course is now open for enrollment for the spring 2017 semester.