Herring, Ortiz, Robinson-Sweet and Studebaker: Yale’s questionable past

“My creed on the subject of slavery is short. Slavery per se is not sin. It is a social condition ordained from the beginning of the world for the wisest purposes, benevolent and disciplinary, by Divine Wisdom.” So said Samuel Morse 1810, inventor, artist, nativist and the namesake of Morse College. Why then, 47 years ago, in the middle of our country’s civil rights movement, did Yale choose to honor Morse by naming a residential college in his honor? This is one question that the members of the Undergraduate Organizing Committee posed through a symbolic renaming of the residential colleges on Indigenous Peoples Day this past Monday.

Indigenous Peoples Day was created to question the way in which the United States honors Christopher Columbus but ignores the suffering inflicted upon original inhabitants and victims of the colonialism that followed. Therefore, this seemed an appropriate day to reflect on the people Yale has chosen to honor. Our intentions were not to get the colleges renamed but rather to provoke discussion. This conversation should take place not only among students but should also include University professors and administrators. This need is especially acute as Yale moves to name two new colleges. We urge the administration to take the concerns we have raised into consideration and honor the liberal standards to which the University professes to adhere; standards which include diversity and gender equality.

We not only seek to question the history of Yale but also to question the way in which Yale approaches this past today.

This history is certainly no secret; we obtained our information from external sources, such as yaleslavery.org. Yet Yale refuses to acknowledge these facts in the way it presents itself as an institution. In our classes, we learn about the history of slavery and colonialism but only at a distance, as if these issues lie purely in the past. Instead, we are part of a living institution that has played a major role in the oppression of peoples — this should be a tool used to bring this history closer to home. Yale’s suppression of this legacy furthers the wrongs done in the past. But we have an opportunity to redress these wrongs through open and honest dialogue.

Yale’s refusal to acknowledge its unsavory history is part of the University’s larger problem with transparency. Over the past year, the Undergraduate Organizing Committee has been working to get Yale to use its shareholder stake in HEI Hotels and Resorts to urge the company to refrain from intimidating its workers through firings and interrogations and to recognize their right to organize. Yale does not disclose information about HEI or its involvement with the company, nor does it willingly discuss the issue. Funding HEI’s mistreatment of workers goes against the University’s liberal image, just as the names of our colleges and other campus buildings conflict with the mission of our University. We call on all members of the Yale community to be aware of our impact on the world, historically and currently and to question to incongruities with the image it presents.

Mac Herring is a sophomore in Berkley College; Sofia Ortiz is a junior in Ezra Stiles College; Anna Robinson-Sweet is a junior in Davenport College; Luke Studebaker is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. They are members of the Undergraduate Organizing Committee.

Comments

  • YLS 12

    More power to you, if the administration tries to discipline you you will have support from law students.

  • Recent Alum

    Imagine that, in 2050, the social consensus on abortion is that it should be illegal because it is murder (i.e., the pro-life position on abortion today wins the debate and becomes the new social consensus). Does this mean that people in 2050 should revoke any honors that have ever been granted to people who, around 2009, were not pro-life (even if their contributions to society were in fields that had nothing to do with the abortion debate)?

  • yale 08

    Christopher Columbus is my hero.

  • Pedagogy

    “In our classes, we learn about the history of slavery and colonialism but only at a distance, as if these issues lie purely in the past. Instead, we are part of a living institution that has played a major role in the oppression of peoples — this should be a tool used to bring this history closer to home.”

    So yours is a call to faculty, right? Or are you asking Dean Miller to dictate to the faculty how their subjects should be taught?

  • Liberal Alum

    Perhaps Mr. Studebaker will change his name, since it is associated with U.S. industrialism of the 19th and 20th centuries. Undoubtedly the various Studebaker companies had disputes with labor unions.

    Singling out HEI in this letter smelled like organized labor input and with a little research, sure enough, it is a target of the national union Unite Here which is battling HEI in various locations. Unite Here’s connection with the author’s committee was pointed out by the YDN in its article last December http://www.yaledailynews.com/news/university-news/2008/12/03/news-analysis-union-propels-hei-protests/ .

    That article pointed out that Unite Here hired college students as interns who have returned to campuses to push for its agenda. I wonder if any of the authors have worked as Unite’s interns or have applied to do so.

    The biggest “worker oppression” issue of Unite is the so-called “card check” method of organizing a union, a salient feature of the ironically named “Employee Free Choice Act”, which among other things would prohibit secret balloting in initial voting for unionizing a workplace.

    Students, alums and university admins are certainly free to follow their consciences and judgments on HEI or other “Undergraduate Organizing Committee” issues, but they should recognize that committee’s sources of information and support.

  • ROFLCOPTER

    These adolescents have far too much time on their hands.

    Ah, to be an art major.

  • kudos

    I’m glad to see that UOC is still active on campus. A great campaign to raise awareness.

  • Jeez

    At one time, the majority of the most advanced countries in the world believed in slavery (Egypt in its heyday, for example). Does that negate every honorable contribution made to the world by these people or societies? I think not.

  • -

    you cant blame Yale today for the actions undertaken by a Yale of yesterday. Then, the moral context and situation was different from today.
    Don’t accuse Yale of being pro-slavery and all this: many of us have ancestors who can be accused of being racist or pro-slavery because that was what many people thought was right at the time, but you can’t accuse us today of this.

    basically, it’s important to know our history, but don’t use it to accuse or put it in our face. Yes, it was wrong – we recognized it and got over it. So get over it too.

  • heartsurgeon

    If your objections to the racist past of Yale are sincere, then why haven’t you withdrawn from Yale and gone elsewhere??

    Haven’t you become “part of the problem” and endorsing Yale’s past by remaining??

    Eh??

  • ROFLCOPTER

    We are all complicit in the perpetuation of past injustices. Repent!

    Except UOC, of course. They’re exempted because they pieced together a poorly-written letter on the issue.

  • lingo

    The best thing about this campaign is that it has forced hundreds of conversations on campus about the history of this institution, not just two hundred years ago, but 40 years ago, and practices today that stem from the same mentality exhibited back then. These conversations expose the reactionary minds on this campus, as they offer excuses and excuses for a person that extoled one of the most serious crimes against humanity.

    It is good to get people who offer excuses for Morse and other such criminals against humanity itself (and others who express the same sentiment by flipping the whole thing off, suggesting that slavery and genocide are less important to discuss than the bladderball, let’s say) to hear themselves as they defend those criminals. A few may even listen to themselves and start to understand who they are and what they represent. And maybe one or two of those may horrify themselves enough by the excuses they are willing to give to those who praised some of the worst practices of history that they actually change their minds.

  • Y12

    The contributions of these namesakes to Yale and higher education still deserve recognition in spite of their personal opinions on something now recognized as abhorrent.

    What part of this don’t you understand? In naming colleges after people who were pro-slavery, Yale was not endorsing slavery. It was endorsing the genius behind an alum who invented morse code and the single-wire telegraph system, to take one example. Samuel Morse was born in 1791. Does it make his pro-slavery views right? No. But context matters. It’s very different than if he held those views today. Hindsight is 20/20, but apparently it makes you feel like good people to sneer at those antiquated losers who had slaves back before the Civil War. God, you’re SO progressive.

    Find a single accomplished historical figure who didn’t hold a now-objectionable opinion on something and maybe we’ll have a discussion. And it really doesn’t help your case when you rename a college after a black nationalist terrorist, because torturing your underlings with boiling water before shooting them wasn’t a cultural norm in 1970, nor will it ever be. Sorry Bobby.

  • @lingo

    Get over yourself. When you name a building after a historical figure, you aren’t endorsing every view and action taken by that figure. Naming a building after one of our founding fathers isn’t endorsing that individual’s ownership of slaves or views on other matters. Similarly, naming a residential college after a man who is known for inventing Morse code isn’t an endorsement of his anti-Catholic or other ridiculous prejudices (yes, he was a Nativist). Historical figures are never perfect and often endorsed things that we now find abominable. But who are you directing your indignation at? Nobody is “defending” these people’s beliefs. And nobody’s saying that genocide or slavery are not important to discuss – they are. But it’s certainly more important to discuss the genocide in Rwanda or what is happening in Darfur today or the modern day injustices in our country (i.e. gay rights) than it is to discuss renaming a building in New Haven. You and the UOC should get some perspective and stop the ridiculous whining about building names and focus your attention on more productive ways of examining social issues. These events truly make the UOC seem like a bunch of idiots.

  • @@lingo

    Well said. For how much energy it has, the UOC could direct a lot of attention towards things that could actually make a difference.

  • Charles

    Clearly, the names of the colleges aren’t going to change. But this campaign did raise awareness about a part of Yale’s history that many students did not know about or do not think about. At the very least, the campaign spread knowledge. And knowledge is good.

    Also, these colleges were named sixty years ago, long after slavery was abolished. Reading the chalking, I was reminded of how society can push some egregious immorality into a natural background that blends into banal, day-to-day life. I appreciated that reminder, too. Its one I wouldn’t mind having every day.

    @#14. Once you start rating which issue is more important, you’ll start sliding down the proverbial slope real quick. The genocide in Darfur is certainly more important than bladderball, or unions, or the Yale Precision Marching Band, or classical music, or health care, or education reform, or folk music, or jump ropes, etc, etc…

  • @lingo again

    To Charles (#16): Certainly knowledge is good, but what knowledge was spread? That famous Yalies and the US as a whole have elements of their history that are disturbing? I think all Yale students are already well-aware of that given that they passed middle school and high school. And your slippery slope comment directed at me makes no sense whatsoever. I’m not saying that people should rank “classical music” versus genocide (where did you even get that, by the way?) in importance. I’m saying that an organization claiming to be devoted to social justice and social justice awareness should tackle more relevant (i.e. not from the 19th century) problems. And can you really claim that it’s a slippery slope to say that social justice is more valuable if directed towards fighting for gay rights and an end to genocide as opposed to renaming a building? It’s kind of like deciding whether you should remove the bear trap on your foot or worry about the hangnail on your finger. Probably better to remove the bear trap first.

  • ROFLCOPTER

    Nowadays, activists can claim success as long as people talk about what idiots they are — it’s called “starting a dialog”