No one is going to argue that Elihu Yale was a nice guy.
As Hiram Bingham III, class of 1898, wrote in his biography of Yale, he had “a domineering, opinionated, [and] aggressive personality” and made his money working for the exploitative British East India Company in India. In short, old Eli was not someone you would have wanted to have tea with. But thanks to his gift in 1718, at Cotton Mather’s request, of books and other goods to the Collegiate School that later became our university, he has been immortalized as the patron and namesake of one of the premier learning institutions in the world. The result is that some of the more unsavory aspects of Yale have been glossed over or ignored.
Which is why it is surprising that the recent brouhaha over the painting portraying Elihu Yale with a black servant reached the resolution that it did (“Univ. to retire ‘racist’ portrait,” 2/7). There are many aspects of the University’s history that are routinely glossed over or ignored, just like Elihu’s taciturnity. As Tyler Hill mentioned in his article, the majority of our residential colleges, seven, are named after slaveowners, and Samuel Morse was a noted proponent of slavery. We have chosen to name buildings after these men, house students in these buildings and chant their names at events, so we should be honest about who they were. I am not suggesting that we should change the names of the colleges, but that we be more informed about the nature of their namesakes.
I do not know of the particular dispositions of John Calhoun, Jonathan Edwards, Ezra Stiles, Timothy Dwight, Jonathan Trumbull, Benjamin Silliman or George Berkeley toward their respective slaves, but I will give them the benefit of the doubt. I will imagine that they were men of their times, living within the prevailing system, which happened to include the cruel and unjust institution of slavery, and were not particularly heinous abusers of their slaves. That they were slave owners is a fact, however, and not one that should be hidden. No one is talking of knocking out the stained glass windows in Calhoun that show slaves picking cotton, and no one should be; it is an honest depiction of how John Calhoun and America as a whole became rich. It is an ugly truth, but a truth nonetheless, and it should not be overlooked.
Similarly, we should not hide away the portrait of Elihu Yale with his servant. Those who consider the painting “racist” are misguided. It is an artistic representation of history, not a glorification of slavery or a subjective statement about race relations. While the sight of it in the meeting room of the most powerful University officials might be unsettling to some, this is a good thing, as it is enlightening about the history of Elihu Yale.
It might be useful to put up a plaque emphasizing that Yale did not own slaves and that the person pictured is a servant, not a slave, but the painting should not be removed. We have been conditioned to view Yale as a great figure, and in some ways he was. We just need to be sure not to lose track of all the ways in which he was not. It is important for us not to dwell in the past, but at the same time, it is only by confronting that history that we are able to move forward.
Kai Thaler is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College.