Dattel: Relics of a racist era

Photo by Mona Cao.

When I entered Yale in September 1962, I was the only student from the Mississippi Delta in my class. That year also marked James Meredith’s integration at the University of Mississippi. The accompanying violence and media attention directed an endless series of questions toward me. In 1966, the year of my graduation, few noticed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s frustrating attempt to bring the civil rights movement north to Chicago. Within four years, the complexity of de facto segregation had replaced the moral clarity of the struggle to end legal segregation.

Little did I know that a recent visit to Yale would produce weighty observations. Sometimes you have to physically be at a place to see a connection. My studies under the mentorship of Robin Winks coalesced into a book which gave me a fresh pair of eyes. While walking by Calhoun College and Timothy Dwight College, I realized that their namesakes yield devastating clues about our country’s racial challenges.

Calhoun College has been a lightning rod for criticism because of the pro-slavery, secessionist position of John C. Calhoun. Timothy Dwight College, named for a former president of Yale, however, bears no such stigma.

Yet the anti-slavery Timothy Dwight’s 1769 opinion of free blacks had crucial implications for the destiny of African-Americans after emancipation and up to the present. Historians downplay Northern racial animosity. But, these antebellum derogatory views confined emancipated slaves to the South, fostered a separate, unassimilated black community and relegated African-Americans to the lowest status in the economy.

It is important to ask not only what antebellum Americans thought about slavery; we must also ask what they thought about free black people. Then we will understand why today’s major American cities with large black populations and no (or minimal) history of slavery, legal segregation or sharecropping have similar racial issues to those which did have slavery, legal segregation and sharecropping.

In a sermon delivered in 1810, Timothy Dwight was scathing in his description of free blacks:

“[T]hese people … are, generally, neither able, nor inclined to make their freedom a blessing to themselves. … [T]hey are turned out into the world, in circumstances fitted to make them nuisances to society. … The hatred of labour … becomes habit. … They have no economy; and waste, of course, much of what they earn. They have little knowledge either of morals or religion. They are left, therefore, as miserable victims of sloth, prodigality, poverty, ignorance and vice.”

For Dwight, the only possible avenue for black advance was absolute dependence on white charity and white tutelage. Was this charitable paternalism similar to plantation, government or philanthropic paternalism? Should we question whether the effects of allegedly benign Northern slavery and harsh plantation slavery were comparable?

In 1811, when the free black population of Connecticut was under 2 percent, Dwight wrote:

“Their vices are of the kinds, usually intended by the phrase ‘low vice.’ Uneducated to principles of morality, or to habits of industry and economy, they labour only to acquire the means of expense, and expend, only to gratify gross and vulgar appetite. Accordingly, many of them are thieves, liars, profane, drunkards, Sabbath-breakers, quarrelsome, idle. … [T]heir ruling passion seems to be a desire of being fashionable. … The difference between them, and the whites, who are nearest to them in circumstance, is entire. The whites are generally satisfied with being decent, with being dressed in such clothes, and living in such a manner, as they can afford.”

White Americans were consistent. In 1789, Benjamin Franklin wanted “a branch of our national police force” to supervise free blacks who should be trained for jobs that “require but little skill.” In a nod to white flight, citizens of New Haven in the 1790s warned that free black migration would depreciate property values by 20 to 50 percent. Harriet Beecher Stowe exiled the heroes and heroines of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” to Africa; further, when asked to contribute to a school for free blacks, she refused and condescendingly wrote, “Will they ever learn to walk?” Powerful anti-slavery politician William Henry Seward remarked in 1866, “The North has nothing to do with negroes. I have no more concern for them than I have for the Hottentots; they are God’s poor; they always have been and always will be so everywhere. …” The New York Times (February 1865) wanted cotton production resumed with “White ingenuity” and “black labor” while, “The negro race … would exist side by side with the white for centuries being constantly elevated by it, individual [African-Americans] … rising to an equality with the superior race.” The white psyche allowed room for a black elite — eerily similar to W.E.B. Du Bois’s “talented tenth.”

What were the future implications of antebellum Northern attitudes? Blacks of the Great Migration were employed in the grittiest and lowest jobs. Deindustrialization has had its severest impact on vulnerable African-Americans in the last few decades. Residential and school segregation and a large black underclass are indelible features of American society.

Timothy Dwight would not be surprised. Both Calhoun and Dwight are very much part of our tragic racial legacy.

Gene Dattel is a 1966 graduate of Berkeley College and the author of “Cotton and Race in the Making of America: The Human Costs of Economic Power.”


  • The Anti-Yale

    Add Jonathan Edwards’ “*Sinners in the Hands of an Angry [White] God”* to this Puritannical Yale mix and Old Blue’s residence halls sound like a school for flagellation, both of self and of African Americans.

    Thank you *YDN* for publishing Mr. Dattel’s important article. Although I am 1/15th Native American (Pequot tribe) I presume to speak for the white race: We have a long history of imposing strident Puritan values on others—-a self-elevating device if there ever was one.

    The arrogant white dismissal of African American anger at the social radiation fall-out from 200 years of first slavery, then segregation, has been an unfortunate thread in *YDN* posts on articles about racial topics in recent days.

    Again, thank you *YDN*.

    Paul Keane

    M. Div. ‘80

  • The Anti-Yale

    Correction: “as” the social-radiation “fall out’ from 200 years

  • The Anti-Yale

    Relics of a Racist Era:
    In your Generation’s eyes, I’m one of them.

  • Y_2011

    Is anyone going to point out to Paul here that 1/15th of any ethnicity is an inherently dubious claim?

  • The Anti-Yale

    Cut it out. What do you want? a DNA test?

    My great great great great grandmother was a Pequot squaw. You do the math. Maybe it’s 1/30th. The POINT is , I (like many Americans) AIN’T PURE white!

  • Inigo_Montoya

    Dear PK,
    I love that you chose to use “ain’t” in that sentence. Also, white guilt is much more becoming when you don’t try to absolve yourself through me-tooism.


  • Leo

    Despite being pro-slavery and racist, Calhoun is also a relic of the Jeffersonian philosophy of limited government, inalienable rights, and economic freedom. He favored secession in large part because of the high tariff imposed by Lincoln’s Republican administration, which forced Southern consumers to purchase Northern manufactured goods at higher prices. To Calhoun, free trade was “the cause of civilization and peace.”

  • The Anti-Yale

    Absolve myself? What ever ARE you talking about?

    I am the only person in all Yale posts for the last two years advocating asking for FORGIVENESS.

  • Y_2011

    Paul Keane can’t multiple by twos :(

  • The Anti-Yale


    I don’t care about Calhoun’s complex philosophical and political views.

    How hard is it to tell RIGHT from WRONG?

    It is WRONG to sell human beings as chattel.


    What the hell kind of CHRISTIAN was he?

  • Leo

    I think it is also wrong to dismiss the political and philosophical views of everyone who has supported slavery in the past. Since slavery was practiced in many societies throughout human history, this dismissal would severely limit the scope of intellectual inquiry.

  • The Anti-Yale


    I can’t multiply–divide —or subtract very well. But then it doesn’t matter much, since money isn’t my GOD and I’m not trying to justify the auctioning off of human beings for a profit as ‘doing HIS WILL’ which some of the namesakes of Yale buildings have done.

  • dalet5770

    Strange how white flight can only be thought of a racist or in clinical terms like rorschach

  • The Anti-Yale


    I’m not trying to dismiss Calhoun’s views. I simply don’t want you to trot those views out as a way of OBFUSCATING the indisputable fact that Senator Calhoun though slavery was fine and dandy. See below:


    John Caldwell Calhoun (pronounced /kælˈhuːn/; March 18, 1782 – March 31, 1850) was a leading politician and political theorist from South Carolina during the first half of the 19th century. A powerful intellect, Calhoun eloquently spoke out on every issue of his day, but often changed positions. Calhoun began his political career as a nationalist and proponent ofprotective tariffs; later, he switched to states’ rights, limited government, nullification and free trade. He is best known for his intense and original defense of slavery as a positive good, for his promotion of minority rights, and for pointing the South toward secession from the Union. . .
    Although Calhoun died nearly 10 years before the start of the American Civil War, he was an inspiration to the secessionists of 1860–61. Nicknamed the “cast-iron man” for his determination to defend the causes in which he believed, Calhoun supported states’ rights and nullification, under which states could declare null and void federal laws which they deemed to be unconstitutional. He was an outspoken proponent of the institution of slavery, which he famously defended as a “positive good” rather than as a “necessary evil”.[2] His rhetorical defense of slavery was partially responsible for escalating Southern threats of secession in the face of mounting abolitionist sentiment in the North.

  • dalet5770

    I would like to enuciate that again. Strange, how white flight can only be thought of as racist and if you disagree you can always seek clinical help such as Rorschach

  • dalet5770

    It is safe to say that Yale and its old campus can only be thought of with morbid curiosity So when I called for the community to install a reflecting pool that would be heated by a crematorium it was not a joke. It might just put an end cap to the issue of white flight

  • 11

    Don’t you have to do GRE math to get into the divinity school?

    1/(2^6) = 1/64

  • Redbob

    Without disputing anything that Mr. Dattel writes, my only comment is “What’s your point?”
    Yes, Yale in the past associated with those now thought of as racist. In that, she is certainly not alone. But what exactly is the point in judging people of two hundred years ago by the standards of today? Is it merely so we can feel morally superior, or is it simply a cheap attempt at making modern-day whites feel guilty?
    Sorry, sport, but I refuse to feel guilt for things I didn’t do.

  • River Tam

    > Although I am 1/15th Native American (Pequot tribe) I presume to speak for the white race:


  • sonofmory

    thank you, RedBob!

  • JohnnyE

    This guy is the anti-Yale in more ways than he would like to be.

  • The Anti-Yale

    Shanty Irish, German Peasant,Yankee Scoundrel, and Pequot: PURE AMERICAN MONGREL. Not a drop of Blue blood, Old or otherwise.

  • connman250

    Accordingly, many of them are thieves, liars, profane, drunkards, Sabbath-breakers, quarrelsome, idle. … This is no way to talk about people at the Yale dining hall!