Since Brown University announced it was forming a committee to investigate the institution’s ties to slavery, questions about the role and responsibility of academic institutions in slavery have forcefully reentered the public vocabulary.
The Brown committee captured national headlines after university president Ruth Simmons announced that Brown would embark on an extensive two-year-long investigation of Brown’s historic links to slavery. In her charge to the committee, Brown president Ruth Simmons urged scholars and students to examine the controversial subject “rigorously and in detail,” and not to worry about achieving consensus.
Yale, for its part, does not plan to pursue a similar investigation. University President Richard Levin said Yale, unlike Brown, satisfactorily dealt with the issue slavery’s legacy two years ago when the Law School sponsored a conference on the topic.
“I think they’re two years behind us,” Levin said.
Levin’s comments highlight the contentious and controversial history of Yale’s efforts to grapple with a past that is inextricably linked to slavery. The history of slavery investigation at Yale is more complex than Levin’s response would lead some to believe.
The 2002 conference was co-sponsored by Yale Law School and the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition at Yale, the only such center in the world.
The story of major public discussion of Yale’s links to slavery began over six years ago, with the founding of the center. But the issue first came to widespread popular attention more recently. In the summer of 2001, a group of three Yale graduate students published a paper entitled, “Yale, Slavery and Abolition” that alleged that the University had profited from the institution of slavery and that nine of Yale’s twelve residential colleges were named after supporters of slavery.
In what was perhaps the report’s most significant contribution, the authors documented extensive evidence of racist, pro-slavery tendencies in Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph and the man for whom Morse College is named. Morse, the report pointed out, was created in 1962, near the height of the Civil Rights movement.
The national press quickly picked up the story, and public scrutiny did not escape the notice of students on campus. Soon after the article was released, Dwight Hall considered changing its name in recognition of the paper’s discovery of evidence that allegedly proved former Yale President Timothy Dwight’s pro-slavery stances. In the end, students in charge of Dwight Hall elected to keep the name, instead dedicating a plaque, still in Dwight Hall today, condemning Dwight’s stance on slavery.
Several months after the paper’s publication, however, historians began questioning the historical accuracy of many of the report’s assertions. A month-long investigation by the News revealed that extensive support for the paper was provided by Yale’s unions. This discovery led many to question the motivations of the report’s authors, and provoked accusations that the paper’s authors had sacrificed historical integrity in an effort to demonize the University as union contact negotiations were set to begin.
University spokesman Tom Conroy echoed these concerns.
“I think that the context of the study was the upcoming labor negotiations with Yale’s unions and in that sense the study was similar to other projects undertaken by the unions such as trying to attract media attention to Yale’s investments,” Conroy said. “It was one of a group of projects undertaken by the unions.”
The paper’s authors were not available to comment for this article.
David Davis, the director of the Gilder Lehrman Center, criticized the paper at the time, noting the lack of historical context present in the report. Still, Davis cautioned readers the subject itself is still worthy of study.
“[The North’s deep ties to slavery are] much worse than what the paper makes it out to be,” Davis told the News in 2001.
Though few claim the initial report was factually perfect, some, like Alfred Marder, president of the Amistad Committee that published the report and author of the report’s preface, think that the University’s strong reaction is misplaced.
“I don’t think Yale should be playing hardball on this,” Marder said. “We just want an honest reexamination of the history. We are not holding the current president or University leadership responsible.”
University officials, however, do not regard Yale’s response as inadequate. Yale simply had to deal with a misleading report that fueled a significant amount of popular controversy, they say. Ultimately, and perhaps ironically, Yale responded to the call for further investigation while pointing out the errors in the 2001 report.
Despite inaccuracies, the report functioned as an effective catalyst for an in-depth appraisal of the role of slavery in New England, Davis said. Though it was “superficial and controversial,” the paper led the University to host the conference in 2002.
The conference serves as the primary source of contention between University officials who claim that the matter has been sufficiently dealt with and activists who believe the conference was in no way definitive.
Levin praised the conference.
“We had a conference that was quite successful. We discussed the history of slavery [in the Connecticut area] so we can come to better terms with our own past,” Levin said. “We’ve had a lot of conversations with people, with local leaders and African American leaders about this legacy and have come to a common understanding.”
For Owen Williams GRD ’08, a member of the New Haven Reparations Coalition who was present during the conference, the core issue of Yale’s involvement with, and responsibility for, its ties to slavery was never adequately addressed or resolved.
“The conference had great intellectual merit, but it was a charade,” Williams said. “The issue of Yale was only discussed once, and very briefly.” Williams has recently completed work on a paper outlining the pro-slavery activity of John Calhoun, for whom Calhoun College was named.
In the period from 2002 until Brown’s decision to form an investigative committee in early March of this year, there has been little publicized activity related to Yale’s links to slavery. The exact reasons for this are varied and somewhat subject to speculation, but much of it stems from the fact that Yale officials do not see a great pressing need for the kind of action Brown is taking.
Davis said professors’ research is highly individualized and subject to personal interest, and outside a setting like the one Brown has created, research will remain piecemeal. However, Davis does not believe Brown’s project should be directly applied to Yale.
“One has to separate the whole issue of slavery in the North from particular questions about Yale,” Davis said. “On the other hand, Brown was founded by slave traders.”
For Amistad’s Marder, University silence on the issue stems from efforts to prioritize Yale’s other concerns.
“People are faced with other issues,” Marder said. “Yale’s relations with the city and Yale’s relations with its workers have become so overwhelming that Yale’s put the issue on the back burner. But it won’t go away.”
In more recent years, said John Campbell ’80, the chairman of the Brown committee, the debate over the history of slavery has been dominated by concerns over reparations and the idea that something, monetarily and/or symbolically, should be paid to the African American community to atone for past sins.
“We need to engage with the complexity in a responsible way,” Campbell said. “Nobody knows how to have a conversation on this yet because everyone wants to reduce it to a question of reparations so they don’t have to think.”
It is, perhaps, this question of responsibility that remains the most divisive and confusing in the effort to better understand Yale’s historic links to slavery. Take, for example, the oft-cited debate over whether the name of Calhoun College should be changed.
What gaps exist between different parties become most clear when representatives offer illustrative analogies.
For Marder and others, changing Calhoun College’s name is a question similar to the recent debate in South Carolina over the removal of the confederate flag from government property. The name’s connection with slavery is so strong, he argues, that it is offensive to African Americans and should be removed.
For Vice President for Finance and Administration John Pepper, an honorary co-chairman of the executive committee of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, the point is to “not to change college names anymore than you’d tear down the Jefferson Monument.”
For Brown’s Campbell, the question of symbolism and responsibility is best represented by a grandfather clock. In the Brown University Dean’s office, Campbell said, there is an antique grandfather clock with a plaque that mentions Admiral Esek Hopkins, a revolutionary war hero who also captained voyages to Africa to collect slaves while on the payroll of the Brown brothers.
“What do we do with the clock?” Campbell asked. “If we just burned the clock, that would be foolish. But it would be equally foolish, especially for a institution founded on the fearless pursuit of knowledge, to not pursue the story behind the clock. We’re going to have a lot of grey.”
Then there is the question of practicality. For Davis, the naming issue must be tempered by recognition of the passing of time. Understanding history, and how the Northern economy was connected to the slaveholding South, is important.
“When I began teaching at Yale in 1970 we had an African American Master of Calhoun, Charlie Davis, who found great delight in being ‘the Black Master of Calhoun!’ So it gets complicated,” Davis said in an e-mail.