In 1781 Washington College was established in Washington, Pennsylvania, and later, in 1792, Jefferson college was established in Canonsburg. The two schools merged in 1865 and became Washington & Jefferson College. As so-called “frontier schools”, the Colleges’ foundings are inseparable from the history of the dispossession of native people/land, debates over slavery, and the Civil War.
Native Americans in Southwestern, PA
Historically, W&J has been viewed as a “frontier school,” but there has been little acknowledgment of the Native Americans who were forcefully removed from the land through violence or ‘treaties.’ Early affiliates of both colleges had a record of mistreatment towards Native Americans before and during their affiliations. For example, John Canon, an affiliate of Jefferson College and the namesake of Canonsburg, had a long history of unwarranted violence towards Native Americans during his time in the army.
Slavery at W&J
During the early periods of the two colleges, slavery played a significant role. When Washington College was established, there were over 400 enslaved people in Washington County. Early supporters of both Washington & Jefferson Colleges, had a tie to slavery including donors, trustees, and reverends, who enslaved people. The last enslaved person in Washington County, Hannah Kelley, died in 1863 at the age of 110 years old.
Although there was strong support for slavery in Washington, many residents supported abolition. In the 1780’s Washington charted an abolition society that became prominent in town. Later, Dr. Julius LeMoyne, a Washington doctor, was influential in promoting abolition and used his home as a safe house on the Underground Railroad. Dr. LeMoyne also sponsored one of the first Black students, Martin Delany, to take classes at W&J.
Later in 1870, the city of Washington demonstrated abolition efforts by issuing voting laws, like the Extract From Act, which declared that in 1870, all freemen would be given the right to vote. Meaning, all men, regardless of race, were permitted to register and vote in Washington, PA.
During the Civil War, the division in American society was reflected on campus. Students from both Washington and Jefferson Colleges were divided in their loyalties, with some supporting the Union and others the Confederacy. This division was reflected in campus organizations such as Phi Gamma Delta fraternity, which published a list of the 12 Confederate and 60 Union soldiers who were active members and students at the College.
Today, the college has begun reflecting on its history with the Civil War. Recently, the names of alumni who died fighting for the Confederacy were removed from the W&J War Memorial.
From the mid 1800’s to roughly the end of the century, Washington & Jefferson College and Washington County hosted minstrel shows, a theater performance intended to present comical portrayals of racial stereotypes. In these shows, white performers would dress in blackface, mock ethnic groups including African American and Native Americans, and promote negative and harmful stereotypes about them. Minstrel shows were popular events for Washington locals as well as W&J students to attend, and some evidence reveals that students also acted in these shows. At the turn of the century
, these events began to lose their popularity, but the core racism and stereotypes remained a prominent aspect of society.
Between the late 1800s and the Second World War, Washington & Jefferson students staged Mock Conventions that took place in March of the year’s presidential elections were held in which they comically expressed their political views. These events were significant aspects of student life on campus. Often, there were racist overtones to the events. As in Minstrel Shows, students regularly appeared in blackface. Images of Mock Conventions appeared in the Pandora yearbook each year a convention was held.