As it marks its 300th anniversary, Yale University is celebrating what
calls its "long history of activism in the face of slavery" - the
abolitionist faculty members who befriended the slaves on the ship Amistad
in 1839, and today, the world's first center for the study of slavery.
But in a research paper published today, three Yale scholars say the
university is ignoring a less honorable side of its history.
They say Yale relied on slave-trading money for its first scholarships,
endowed professorship and library endowment. It honored slave traders when
choosing figures to chisel as "Worthies" on the tower at the center of its
campus, and only 40 years ago chose the names of slave traders when it was
naming some colleges. According to documents these scholars have unearthed,
in 1831 Yale officials led the opposition that ultimately stopped
construction in New Haven of what would have been the nation's first black
college, saying that such an institution in the same city would be
"incompatible with the prosperity, if not the existence," of Yale.
The scholars, all doctoral candidates at Yale, say they hope their work
force Yale to the center of a growing national debate over slavery and
whether and how to make amends for it.
The article, "Yale, Slavery and Abolition," is being published by the
Amistad Committee, which was founded 162 years ago to lead the effort to
free the African slaves who landed on a ship in New Haven harbor after
rebelling against their captors. It calls for Yale to acknowledge how it has
benefited from the profits of slave trade, and to consider reparations to
those whose ancestors suffered under slavery.
"Universities are first and foremost supposed to stand up for the truth,"
said Antony Dugdale, a doctoral student in philosophy and one of the three
authors, "and yet there's been a real absence of any real discussion or real
scholarship on the history of universities themselves, or their role, with
regard to slavery."
Many Americans assume slavery was purely a Southern phenomenon, but
Northerners profited from the slave trade. Universities reaped the benefits:
Nicholas and John Brown, two of the founders of what became Brown
University, were slave traders; Harvard Law School was endowed by money its
founder earned selling slaves in Antigua's cane fields.
In a statement in response to the report, Yale officials defended the
university by noting that "Few, if any, institutions or individuals from the
period before Emancipation remained untainted by slavery."
But the report's authors, and the Amistad Committee, say that Yale
compounded unfortunate history by choosing, between the 1930's and 1970's,
to name its most prominent buildings after slave traders or defenders of
slavery, even as the country was in the midst of an active effort to break
with past racism.
The report does not deny the accomplishments for which Yale presumably
its honorees - prominent politicians, philosophers and inventors. It
objects, however, that Yale, even now, makes no mention of these men's more
questionable positions and activities in support of slavery, which might
have made them more controversial choices when the campus's most prominent
locations were named.
Abolitionists with similarly stellar accomplishments, and Yale degrees,
while noted in the university's 300th anniversary literature, receive little
recognition on campus. A city high school named for James Hillhouse, a
prominent abolitionist, Yale graduate, senator and congressman, was bought
by Yale and torn down to make room for two new colleges in the 1960's, one
of which was named for Samuel F. B. Morse, the inventor of the telegraph,
who defended slavery as a "positive good" and advocated the excommunication
of those who supported abolition.
"Yale is far from being the only or the worst in this regard," said
Horne, a professor of African and Afro-American studies at the University of
North Carolina at Chapel Hill, "but on the other hand, Yale purports to be,
and is, a leading force in higher education in the United States, and it's
important for Yale to set an example."
In its response, the university noted its progressive policies toward
and the study of slavery. Yale says it granted the nation's first doctoral
degree to a black student in 1876. Today, the Gilder Lehrman Center for the
Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition, founded in 1998 and named for
the New York financiers and Yale graduates Richard Gilder and Lewis Lehrman,
is the only one of its kind anywhere. Yale also says it was the first
university in the country to offer a master's degree in African-American
On the issue of slavery, Yale's director of public affairs, Helaine
Klasky, said in a statement, "Today, we regret and renounce these evils and
seek, through scholarship and communication, to better understand them, but
we cannot undo them."
But those who support reparations dismiss this defense as intellectual
dishonesty. "As an academic institution with some moral grounding, it's hard
to use the argument that `Everyone did it,' " said Charles J. Ogletree, a
professor at Harvard Law School and the co-coordinator of the Reparations
Coordinating Committee, which is preparing to file a lawsuit in early 2002
on behalf of the descendants of slaves against those who earned "unjust
enrichment" from slavery. "It seems to me that someone has to have the
courage to say it was flatly wrong and we're going to be prepared to take
some courageous steps to affirmatively address the practices and policies
that have resulted from this."
It is well known at Yale that John C. Calhoun, a former vice president
is honored as a "Worthy" on Harkness Tower and with a college in his name,
was a staunch defender of states' rights and what he called the "good" of
slavery. (Of the phrase "All men are born free and equal," he wrote, "It is
But the histories of the other figures examined in the new report are
well known, and in many cases, are not in biographies of them.
The scholars gathered their evidence from primary sources, including
officials' 1831 statements opposing the black college proposal, bills of
sale from slave auctions and census records, as well as from accounts by
other historians, and even a senior thesis by Kurt L. Schmoke, the former
mayor of Baltimore who is now a senior fellow on the Yale Corporation, the
university's governing board, which examined the fight against the black
Yale benefited from the slave trade beginning with its first professorship,
endowed by Philip Livingston, whom historians record as one of the biggest
slave traders in the colonies. Today, the Livingston Gateway at Yale stands
in his honor. Similarly, the first scholarships were endowed by profits from
a plantation worked by slaves in New England, and the scholarships, as well
as a college, are named for the plantation owner George Berkeley. A plaque
in the college lauds his effort to establish a college in Bermuda. According
to Berkeley papers examined by the report's authors, the college was to be a
place to evangelize captured American Indian boys, or as the papers call
them, "such savages as are under 10 years of age."
Ten of Yale's 12 residential colleges are named after prominent men
Yale's history. Of the 10, eight owned slaves, and four published or
sermonized in favor of slavery.
The report's other two authors, J. J. Fueser and J. Celso de Castro
are doctoral students in American studies and history at Yale. They and Mr.
Dugdale said they began the study, which is not their doctoral work, after
noting the contradiction between Yale's 300th anniversary statements about
its abolitionist past and the prominence it awards Mr. Calhoun. They began
to gather other stories about prominent honorees with slave-trading
connections, and dug deeper into Yale's history. (Their work will be posted
They suggest that Yale organize a conference of its peer institutions
determine how they, and the companies in which their endowments are
invested, benefited from slavery. At the least, the study says, Yale should
pressure those companies to make amends to the descendants of slaves. Mr.
Dugdale suggested that Yale consider restitution, perhaps in the form of
Some scholars object that these kind of demands made by those in the
reparations movement lack historical perspective.
"Slavery when those people lived was largely an unquestioned part of
existence," said John H. McWhorter, author of "Losing the Race: Self-
Sabotage in Black America." (Free Press, 2000) "It's downright inappropriate
to render a moral judgment on the worth of a person's life based on moral
standards which didn't exist at that time - and that includes something as
horrific as the ownership of African-American people."
Those who support reparations, however, say Yale must at least acknowledge
the complete history behind the names that adorn its architecture. "If we
found out that these institutions had been financed by Adolf Hitler or some
legitimately despised institution, they wouldn't hesitate to change the
name," Professor Ogletree said. "In the same way we can't forget what one
man did to virtually destroy a people, we can't forget what a few men did to
perpetuate America's worst evil - that's slavery."