Slavery complicates University’s history

In one of the stained-glass windows in the Calhoun College dining hall, a black man and woman walk through a field, baskets of produce on their heads. Although no explicit description of the window’s contents is provided, the image it presents is unmistakable: this is John C. Calhoun’s South Carolina, the produce in the basket is cotton, and the man and woman are slaves.

Although the legacy of Yale’s connection to slavery may be tucked away in the corner of a dining hall, it is still a fact of history. While a Brown University committee recently completed a report detailing the University’s historical ties to slavery, Yale has not focused significant attention on its own ties since 2002, when the law school and the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition teamed up on a conference entitled “Yale, New Haven and American Slavery.” While Yale has no current plans to undertake a report similar to Brown’s, some professors and students said they think the University should promote research on the issue.

A stained-glass window in the Calhoun College dining hall shows two slaves. Some think the University needs to promote dialogue and study on the issue of slavery.
Jonathan Jimenez
A stained-glass window in the Calhoun College dining hall shows two slaves. Some think the University needs to promote dialogue and study on the issue of slavery.

Opening the discourse

James Campbell, chair of the Brown University Committee on Slavery and Justice said Brown felt it was important to confront candidly the issue of its involvement with slavery. Brown University President Ruth Simmons, who appointed the committee, is the first African-American to lead an Ivy League institution. Campbell said the conversations that students have had on this issue have been far richer than the committee could have hoped.

“We used this as an occasion to not only to teach our students about the history of the institution but also to model for them how it was possible to confront very awkward, controversial questions in reasoned, civil and academically rigorous ways,” he said.

In its report, the Brown committee recommended that the university formally acknowledge the participation of many of its founders and benefactors in the institution of slavery, create a slave trade memorial, write a new history book that includes references to slavery and incorporate a discussion of the university’s relationship to slavery in freshman orientation.

Several students said they thought if Yale looked into its historical relationship with slavery, it would show the evolution of the University from a more conservative to a more liberal institution. They said if Yale does not come forth and investigate its past, students will have no other means of finding out exactly what happened.

“I think it is the responsibility of the University to open this discourse and make this information available to students,” Danielle Lespinasse ’07 said.

Yale’s eight-year-old Gilder Lehrman Center, which is part of the MacMillan Center for International Studies, focuses most of its research on the international development of slavery in the modern world rather than on American slavery. Assistant Director Dana Schaffer said while the center has studied American slavery, its research projects are often dependent on its fellows’ interests, which have spanned nations and time periods.

Aside from the actions of the center, Associate Director Robert Forbes said that there has not been a University-wide commitment to the issue comparable to the Brown initiative.

“Yale as an institution could have applied its extraordinary resources to accomplish more and take a greater leadership role in mobilizing more resources than were available through the GLC,” Forbes said. “It could have made this a bigger story than it ultimately did.”

Chris Rabb ’92, co-founder of the Yale Black Alumni Network, said the administration has not taken leadership in substantively addressing this issue, since Yale has benefited from the money generated from the slave trade, played a historic role in the aftermath of the Amistad revolt and is located in New Haven, a city with a large impoverished black community.

“I think the silence is deafening as a black alum of a predominantly white institution,” he said. “It heightens my long-standing suspicion of the extent to which the University is sensitive to its various constituencies.”

Creating controversy

The Law School’s 2002 conference was organized in response to a 2001 report written by three Yale doctoral students. The report, entitled “Yale, Slavery, and Abolition,” alleged that nine of Yale’s 12 residential colleges are named after slave owners or prominent defenders of slavery. While the academic merits of the report were disputed — some critics said the report, which was funded by GESO and Locals 34 and 35, lacked historical context and was meant simply to embarrass Yale ­— the controversy it generated was enough to draw a response from the University.

But Owen Williams LAW ’07, who attended the conference, said despite the fact that one of the workshops was entitled “The Edwards Tradition and Post-Revolutionary Yale,” the only mention of Yale’s relationship to slavery came during one of the workshop’s question and answer sessions.

“That conference was a way of appearing to respond to the Yale and slavery report, without in fact responding,” Williams said.

While administrators intended the conference to be the beginning of Yale’s response to its historical involvement with slavery, Forbes said, he thinks it was the end of it.

But given that the University’s long history reaches back to a period where slavery was prevalent in society, Yale President Richard Levin said, the University’s historical ties to slavery are inevitable.

“American history is full of embarrassments,” Levin said. “We know today that slavery was very widespread in the North as well as the South, at least prior to the Revolutionary War. There are a number of early leaders of this institution who were slave owners. It’s simply a fact of history.”

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor Gerald Horne, who wrote the foreword to the 2001 graduate student report, said the fact that many institutions have historical ties to slavery does not excuse Yale from investigating the depth of its relationship to slavery.

“This country has a bloodstained history and I don’t think it’s sufficient to say that everybody is doing it, so nobody has to do anything,” Horne said.

While Forbes said he believes Yale could have done more after the 2001 graduate student report was released to build discussion on the issue, he said he understands the cautious stance the University took.

“I’m also a realist in recognizing that this university is a multibillion dollar corporation that operates with extreme caution and conservatism,” Forbes said. “It’s a challenging environment to negotiate the abstract values of academic inquiry.”

The 2001 report also caused controversy among students. After the release of the report, which alleged that Timothy Dwight trained more pro-slavery clergymen than any other educator in the nation during his tenure as Yale president, Dwight Hall coordinators considered changing the name of their organization. Although Dwight Hall retained its name in the end, students installed a plaque that acknowledged Dwight’s pro-slavery practices while maintaining the organization’s mission of social justice.

“With this plaque, Dwight Hall at Yale renounces the pro-slavery thought and actions of Timothy Dwight, while reaffirming our predecessors’ work on behalf of justice and equality,” reads the plaque, which is displayed inside Dwight Hall. “We maintain the name Dwight Hall to ensure the ideological continuity of this work in the minds of Yale students and New Haven residents, who associate Dwight Hall with the ideals of public service and social justice.”

Director of the Gilder Lehrman Center David Blight said that having the University create an unbiased committee of people from different backgrounds, disciplines and fields to address Yale’s connection to slavery, antislavery and race relations could “do useful good for the campus.” But he said unlike the 2001 graduate student report, the committee and its research should be conducted in a broad and open process.

“You don’t want to do things just to expose a piece of the past, just try to embarrass people,” Blight said. “You want to do it for good, sound educational reasons.”

Questioning Calhoun

Although the 2001 report said that many of Yale’s residential colleges are named after slave owners, the most controversial college remains Calhoun College, which was named after former Vice President John C. Calhoun 1804, an outspoken advocate of slavery.

Williams, who has written a paper entitled “Calhoun College: Honoring the Dishonorable,” said America’s overwhelming racism is apparent in the fact that in 1933, 68 years after the Civil War, Yale named a college after a white supremacist. He said the greater issue at hand is not just recognizing what happened to blacks during slavery, but acknowledging the injustice that lived on for generations after slavery.

“Yale participated directly in that injustice,” Williams said. “It perpetuated the injustice by naming a college to honor John C. Calhoun.”

As the second African-American master of Calhoun, Jonathan Holloway said he realizes the “thick and rich” irony of his position but thinks it offers him a wonderful opportunity to talk about what slavery and emancipation mean. He said he has made a distinct effort to explain who John C. Calhoun was and how his ideology helped lay the foundation for the Civil War in Calhoun’s Web site, printed facebook and Wikipedia entry. Calhoun also hosts the annual Black History Month Celebration Dinner in February.

“I think that the naming of the college is a horrible mistake in that it reflects the fascism of the time,” Holloway said. “There is no doubt about it, but I don’t want to sterilize our history. This is shameful, embarrassing and wrong, and we need to talk about that.”

Williams said he has proposed that Calhoun College be renamed Calhoun-Bouchet college after Edward Bouchet 1876, the first African-American to receive a doctoral degree in America.

“My own feeling would be that you don’t want to whitewash the past,” he said. “Renaming one of the colleges would be symbolic; it would be significant; it would be an important gesture towards uncovering the truth in Yale and America’s past.”

But Holloway said he would not want Calhoun to be renamed. He thinks what while in the short-run renaming the college might generate attention and awareness about Yale’s relationship to slavery, in the long-run people will forget who Bouchet was and what he stands for, just as they do not know the story of the figures behind buildings such as Linsly-Chittenden Hall or Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall.

“[Williams’ plan] would bring a firestorm of controversy and attention,” Holloway said. “My method is a more deliberative, one person pushing up the boulder on the hill in a kind of sense. I just feel like this is one of my jobs, one of my calls to service in this position.”

Rather than renaming any of its current colleges, students and faculty said Yale could partially rectify the issue by naming one of the possible new residential colleges after people with positive legacies like Bouchet.

Calhoun students said the name of the college does not evoke their college’s controversial namesake but simply the college itself.

“There is such a disconnect between the name and what it stands for,” Rachel Geronemus ’08 said. “I haven’t heard any sense of discord even from African-American students, and I have never thought about it in that way. [Among] anyone that I have talked to in Calhoun, no one has ever thought of it as an issue, but if there was an actual problem, then I think that would change how I felt about it.”

Generally, students said most attention is focused on the community that the college fosters, not its name or its history.

“People don’t focus on the history behind the college, because it’s not like we are all pro-slavery,” Lespinasse said. “Maybe we should focus more on it, because Yale is all about tradition and history and going back to 1701, but a lot of our concerns are about changing the future instead of focusing on the history.”

But some students said it is important to understand the history of our residential colleges, since many people are not aware that Yale and other places in the Northeast are as connected to slavery as the plantations of the South.

“I think it’s disappointing that many of us live in dorms that are named after slave owners and are completely ignorant or don’t care about that fact, because I feel like we should always be aware of the history and the legacy of the university we attend,” Mark Beyersdorf ’08 said.

Opinion remains mixed on the issue of Calhoun’s stained-glass windows. For Rabb, seeing the window on a daily basis was a form of institutional racism and harassment, he said. The window depicting slaves stands between two windows showing a rabbit and wild birds, which Rabb said implied the slaves were like animals.

Holloway said he has not personally seen the stained-glass window of slaves in the cotton field, since Calhoun just finished its window renovation project this past summer and the windows were previously so corroded they were not visible. But he said that while he is aware that many people of the era thought slaves were nothing more than animals, he would not automatically jump to the conclusion that the windows were likening African-Americans to animals.

“I’m not defending these pictures, but I think a lot of them are trying to capture images of Calhoun’s southern heritage where there was game,” Holloway said. “These are areas where people lived off the land. There is a plantation culture but also plenty of hunting, deer, duck and rabbit.”

Some students said that while they could see how the window is offensive, they said it serves to keep them mindful that racism is still an issue today. Keeping the window is a way of acknowledging Calhoun’s racist beliefs and actions and accepting history, rather than glossing it over, they said.

“Not everything can be politically correct,” Mimi Jeffries ’07 said. “Especially since [Calhoun] is supposed to be historical. I think it goes along with the theme of reflecting the namesake of the college.”

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