Slavery report’s contents, not authors, deserve discussion

To the Editor:

The article by Jia Lynn Yang on the publication, “Yale, Slavery and Abolition” (“Yale slavery report questioned by experts,” 12/12) has been brought to my attention. I regret the tone and tenor of that article.

It makes no contribution to the very serious discussion that its authors and the Amistad Committee hope the publication would initiate.

The reporter appears to have decided that there was a great conspiracy afoot to reveal the historic reality that nine colleges of Yale University are named after slaveholders.

Rather than investigating how it was possible for a prestigious university to name these colleges, not in the antebellum United States, but in the 1930s and 1960s, when the country was in the midst of struggles against racism, a cancer eating away at the very heart of our society, she chose to obscure the contribution these graduate students have made by focusing on who paid for what, as if that negates the validity of the work.

Let me deal first with the report’s connection with the Federation of Hospital and University Employees. Our relations have been close.

Together we joined the world campaign against apartheid in South Africa. Together we organized candlelight vigils, invited leaders of the African National Congress to speak, circulated petitions, met with congressional representatives, marched together, and secured textbooks from public schools for the children in exile.

Together we organized the Northeast Conference Against Apartheid here in New Haven, at Yale. Together we supported the campaign to get Yale University to divest its stock holdings in companies doing business with South Africa, a campaign involving both students and faculty, that did not succeed.

Together, successfully, we were able to get the city of New Haven and the state of Connecticut to divest their holdings. The federation has supported the efforts of the Amistad Committee from the very beginning.

It is a tribute to the workers at Yale for their understanding that the struggle against racism is the other side of the coin for their own welfare. We are firm allies.

We were honored that the Amistad Committee was approached by the young scholars of “Yale, Slavery and Abolition” with the suggestion that we publish their findings.

Our mission is clear: to use the truths of history to combat racism in our time.

Scholars may argue about Timothy Dwight’s role, but why don’t they question the naming of colleges after men like John C. Calhoun or Samuel F.B. Morse? In the 1930s and 1960s?

Isn’t that putting things in historical context? Why do these Confederate flags sit in the center of our city?

Isn’t that worthy of scholarship and responsible reporting?

After the publication of “Yale, Slavery and Abolition,” we reprinted an essay on “Cinque of the Amistad, a Slave Trader? Perpetuating a Myth,” by Dr. Howard Jones, chairman of the Department of History at the University of Alabama and author of the definitive work, “Mutiny on the Amistad.”

We did so because this myth has served to undermine the leader of the Amistad Revolt, Sengbe Pieh, cynically questioning his character and undermining our subsequent efforts to bring this significant story to our country.

Who gave this myth broad credence? Distinguished historians Samuel Eliot Morrison of Harvard, C. Vann Woodard of Yale, and Henry Steele Commager of Columbia recklessly endorsed this baseless charge.

Their prestige perpetuated the damage. We are aware of how the history of our country has been distorted by the infection of racism, the elimination or distortion of the role of African Americans to the fashioning of our society.

Isn’t it the responsibility of historians to search out facts and allow for open debate on the significance in their findings?

Certainly, the Amistad Committee welcomes the explosion of exploration of the barbarous practice of slavery and its effects upon societies.

We welcomed the convening of a World Conference on Racism this past September by the United Nations in Durban, South Africa. We applaud the stellar contributions to that study by the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition at Yale.

We deplore, however, attempts to denigrate that discussion by questioning the motives of research.

Let us debate the scholarship. That is in order. But we must not lose sight of our responsibility to discuss, question and act upon the reality that 27 million African Americans, flesh and blood people, face daily the consequence of slavery, abolished legally 136 years ago!

This is why the Amistad Committee published the brochure — the lessons of history for today’s use.

Alfred L. Marder

December 13, 2001

The writer is president of The Amistad Committee.

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