Mercer University and Universities Studying Slavery

Founded in 1833, “Mercer Institute” formed as an outgrowth of Baptist leaders in Georgia interested in creating an educated ministry. While Mercer’s founding at Penfield, GA, has been told, the nature of the building and daily operation of the institution has not been explored beyond anecdotal accounts of student life or the founders’ desire to provide students a Baptist education. The use of enslaved labor for the construction of buildings and the functioning of the school from its inception remains obscured by an origin story grounded in the narrative of Baptist higher education. With the college’s move to Macon, Georgia, in 1874 and the significant step of desegregating the school in 1963, the earlier history of Mercer appears distant both in terms of time and space. With 28% of the current student body identifying as African Americans, Mercer University has done a remarkable job at recruiting and retaining students whose experience varies greatly from Mercer students of an earlier era. We recognize that a fuller accounting of the university’s history will affirm for those students the university’s commitment to uncovering its past.

A recent graduate of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Summer Perritt, wrote her master’s thesis with a focus on Mercer’s founders and their role in the slave economy.[1] This article is the first attempt to understand Mercer’s tie to the slave economies of the state, region, and nation. There is more to uncover and explore in the description of the physical space at Penfield and the financial structure that allowed the institution to grow. Mercer University has a wealth of archival sources in its special collections that would help us tell the story of Mercer’s engagement in the slave economy. Financial records document that the College rented enslaved people who lived and worked on the campus at Penfield. Where the university housed them on the original campus remains unclear. We also know that the holding of enslaved persons built much of the wealth of Mercer’s founders and benefactors. A fuller exploration of Mercer’s slave past will help us understand the nature and purpose of a Baptist education that required graduating students to defend the institution of slavery in the early 1860s curriculum.[2] Given the proximity of the African American cemetery to the cemetery of the founders of Mercer, we can deduce that their interactions were daily and constant, but we do not yet know the fuller story. Mercer’s initial vision for this work is an accounting for the geography of slavery at Penfield and then how that geography shifted in the post-Emancipation world, first while still in Penfield and then with Mercer’s move to Macon, GA. Current Mercer first-year students return to the original campus every fall in a “Pilgrimage to Penfield” connection to the past, but until 2020 almost no reference had been made that situates the founding of Mercer within the slave economy that surrounded and benefited the school. We hope to reorient that conversation in the future.

Under the auspices of the Spencer B. King, Jr. Center for Southern Studies, faculty and student researchers will examine the historical record to narrate with greater clarity the institution’s engagement with those economies. Faculty research projects in Macon/Bibb County and nearby Jones County will serve as models for this new work in Penfield. There is a project in Bibb County in partnership with the Clerk of the Court’s office to digitize the sale bills of enslaved people. Another undertaking in Jones County examines Jarrell Plantation to see how the distribution of land after Emancipation indicates kin ties between slaver and enslaved. Another project in Bibb County looks at how white congregations used their enslaved persons as collateral for property acquisition and building programs. In each case the research has been done in partnership with community members and organizations to help tell a more complete story about Middle Georgia. Those models will be used to uncover the founding of Mercer through student research projects in Africana Studies and History curricula, as well as other programs to encourage their students to do this work. We will create ways for people to interact digitally with the material, as well as partner with community leaders in Greene County—home to Penfield—to provide support with ongoing projects like the African American Museum and African American Penfield Cemetery. The goal of the projects in Penfield is to recognize and commemorate the contributions of African Americans to Mercer’s success.


[1] Summer Perritt, “Built on Their Backs: Slavery at Mercer University,” Master Programme Dissertation, College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences; School of History, Classics and Archaeology, University of Edinburgh, 2020.

[2] Drew Gilpin Faust, The Creation of Confederate Nationalism: Ideology and Identity in the Civil War South, The Walter Lynwood Fleming Lectures in Southern History, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998. 62; Mercer University Catalog, 1861 (Penfield, GA: 31-32).