A Peculiar Institutional Memory

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“But let me not be understood as admitting, even by implication, that the existing relations between the two races in the slaveholding States is an evil,” John C. Calhoun 1804 argued on the U.S. Senate floor in 1837. “Far otherwise, I hold [slavery] to be a good, as it has thus far proved itself to be to both, and will continue to prove so if not disturbed by the fell spirit of abolition.”

That same decade, Samuel F. B. Morse 1810 was also engaged in a heated debate, though over a different sort of property. His revolutionary invention, the telegraph, had come under fire with patent law. Yet as his fame and fortune grew, Morse moved from a defense of intellectual property to a defense of slavery.

“Slavery per se is not sin,” wrote Morse in 1863. “The mere holding of slaves, therefore, is a condition having per se nothing of moral character in it, any more than being a parent, or employer, or ruler.”

In 1933, Yale named Calhoun College. Twenty-eight years later — three years before the Civil Rights Act and Yale’s award of an honorary doctorate to Martin Luther King Jr. — Morse College was named.

Fast-forward to Yale’s tercentennial celebrations. The year is 2001 and Yale’s relationship to slavery is summarized thusly in its 300th anniversary brochure: “Yale graduates and faculty have had a long history of activism in the face of slavery and a modern history of scholarship about it.”

For three graduate students — Antony Dugdale GRD ’01, J. J. Fueser GRD ’02 and J. Celso de Castro Alves GRD ’06 — Yale’s retelling of history seemed too pat. Penned in part as a response to Yale’s lack of “serious scholarly reflection about the institution’s progress in the past century” and inspired by the nation’s larger discussion of reparations for slavery, the three paused their respective dissertations to publish a 50-page report on “Yale, Slavery and Abolition” midway through the tercentennial.

The stories of Calhoun and Morse, along with those of other prominent affiliates honored by Yale, were unearthed in the essay’s report of Yale’s relationship to slavery. The report revealed that eight out of 12 of Yale’s residential colleges had been named after men associated with slavery and slave money.

“The vast majority of people didn’t even know slavery existed in New England,” said history professor David Blight, one of the nation’s leading authorities on the Civil War and the director of Yale’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition. “Never underestimate ignorance about history.”

For many, the report served as a wake-up call to ask how issues of slavery and memory could be dealt with differently — then and now.


A conference titled “Yale, New Haven and American Slavery” was the University’s response to the report’s findings in 2002. Co-sponsored by the Gilder Lehrman Center and Yale Law School, Blight gave his first speech at the University as the center’s new director.

Yet according to those who attended, including Blight, the actual issue of Yale’s relationship to slavery, as detailed in the report, was only mentioned once throughout the conference, in passing.

“Yale did a good job of making the report go away by hosting a conference purporting to be about the issue at hand, which then it wasn’t,” said R. Owen Williams LAW ’07 GRD ’09, who attended the conference while a graduate student at Yale.

Since 2002, no further allusions or actions have been announced on the part of the University to scrutinize its own involvement with slavery head on.

“If there’s ever a chance for a robust conversation to deal with race, citizenship and how New England’s contributions were wound up in the capitalist system of slavery, and it’s not taken, I see that as a missed opportunity,” Calhoun Master and Professor of History Jonathan Holloway GRD ’95 said.

“It was a flare-up that went away almost as fast as it came,” Williams recalled. “It made for a wonderful discussion that lasted for all too short a time.”


Williams wrote a paper called “Calhoun College: Honoring the Dishonorable,” which argued that America was “so white and lily white supremacist in its bias as a nation in the 1930s that no one questioned the naming of Calhoun College.”

On Indigenous Peoples Day in 2009, members of the Undergraduate Organizing Committee chalked and posted flyers of new names onto the residential colleges, including Calhoun, as a way of “provoking thought and asking people to think about what the names really mean,” said Mac Herring ’12, a member of the Undergraduate Organizing Committee.

“It’s so easy when you’re talking about Calhoun College to forget it was named for John C. Calhoun, who was one of the more reprehensible figures in American history,” Ben Crosby ’13 said. “What the chalking did best for me was to defamiliarize [the status quo] and to ask about the implications of memorializing folks who were involved with slaves and slave trades in the brick and mortar materiality of the university.”

Historians often caution that for all the geography and traditions they share, Old Yale and today’s Yale are very different places full of completely different people. But even so, it was not antebellum Yale that named Calhoun College but rather, early 20th-century men, tied to Yale’s long-standing Southern associations.

“Why are we honoring him at this erstwhile bastion of antislavery?” Williams said.

For the authors of the “Yale, Slavery and Abolition report,” what was most troubling was that Yale chose to ignore their honoraries’ unsavory actions, decades, and then even centuries later.

The tercentennial edition of the Yale Alumni magazine listed Morse as one of Yale’s top graduates without mentioning his pro-slavery positions or his leadership in the movement.

Whereas the report did not seek to discredit men such as Morse for their accomplishments, it asked why no critical inquiry had examined the way these men and Yale were complicit in the institution of slavery while the equally influential abolitionist alumni had received little to no recognition.

That said, many said they would shy away from renaming Calhoun College entirely. The UOC had wished to provoke a discussion about the colleges, members said, rather than rehaul their names permanently.

“Conversations about names are important, and acknowledging Yale’s troubled past with race and other oppressions would be really great to do with naming of new colleges so that we don’t remember more dead white men with problematic opinions,” Herring said.

The naming of the two new colleges, scheduled to open in 2015, will open this dialogue again with new results.

Indeed, many professors and administrators wish to name one of the colleges after Edward Bouchet, the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. in the United States.

“There are so many reasons why,” Chief Research Archivist and inaugural recipient of the Edward Bouchet Legacy Award Judith Schiff said of the possible naming. Bouchet was a native of New Haven and the first African-American graduate of Yale College. He graduated sixth in his class from Yale as a member of the Phi Beta Kappa society. Still, he was unable to find a post as a professor because of his race, Williams said.


A good rule of thumb is that if you go back far enough in any university’s — or for that matter, any institution’s past — involvement and investments in slavery will arise.

Connecticut passed its gradual emancipation plan in 1790s and did not finish liberating slaves until well into the 1820s and ’30s, meaning that slavery was legal during the first full century of Yale’s history. It was not unusual, then, for ministry or gentlemen in the North to own slaves.

In light of this historical fact, Yale administrators were quoted in a 2001 New York Times editorial saying that “few, if any, institutions or individuals from the period before Emancipation remained untainted by slavery.” Critics took this stance as one that avoided or excused the University’s responsibility for its legacy.

The “Yale, Slavery and Abolition” report questioned the notion that men are nothing more than the products of their time. By examining the actions of other men from Calhoun’s time period, the authors suggest that he did not necessarily need to own slaves.

Calhoun’s contemporary, James Hillhouse 1773, served as Yale’s treasurer for half a century and fought against the importation of slaves into the Louisiana Purchase. “I consider slavery a serious evil,” the report quotes him saying, “and wish to check it wherever I have the authority.”

Regarding his moral defense of slavery as a good, Calhoun said as he grew older, “In looking back, I see nothing to regret and little to correct.”

Apparently, neither did Yale.

“The fact that there was no controversy then,” Blight said, “shows us that problems of historical memory are always implicitly about the present — and the present views in which we have these debates.”


At the time of the report, Yale seemed more embarrassed than accepting of the findings.

“Institutional memory is always self-promoting by definition,” Blight said. “You have a public affairs office to exalt what goes on here and there are incredible great things, before bringing up skeletons in one’s closet. But the point is the past is always full of surprises if you look.”

Universities, first and foremost, are supposed to stand up for the truth, Crosby said. But, as professor of Slavic languages and literature John MacKay GRD ’98 added, this is not always simple.

“If one is a critical intellectual, one has a duty, often a painful duty, to criticize the institutions in which one is doing intellectual work. It’s not an easy duty because it does require painful reflection.”


Does the truth really have to go hand in hand with disgrace?

The UOC points the possibility of further transparency and education as being able to lead the effort.

“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,” members of the UOC wrote in the News in 2009. “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.

Holloway has embraced Calhoun’s name as an occasion for more serious reflection on history and community, meeting with small groups of students over dinner to have the sort of productive, intimate and tricky conversations about slavery that the college’s namesake enables.

When the issue of an image in the Calhoun dining hall of two black women picking cotton was brought to him in 2006, Holloway decided to leave the pane there, making the college a positive model for acknowledging, rather than erasing, history.

When Dwight Hall leaders found out about Timothy Dwight’s slave-holding sympathies from the 2001 report, they considered changing the name of their organization. Although eventually they decided to keep the name for “ideological continuity … in the minds of Yale students and New Haven residents, who associate Dwight Hall with the ideals of public service and social justice,” they also put up a plaque explaining their choice and recognizing Dwight’s “pro-slavery thought and actions.”

But the University has put up no such plaques.

Instead, an obscured window depicting Elihu Yale, with an African slave in metal collar and chains kneeling before him, was quietly removed in 2007 from the table above the Yale Corporation Room in Woodbridge Hall. Few students ever go there. It is the semisecret room where Yale’s men write a history that is off the public record.

“It’s really hard to maintain a historical and institutional memory of wrongdoing, and that’s actually most important at times,” Herring said, adding that academics can sometimes distract students from focusing on these sorts of issues.


“Lest we think we’ve always been this bastion of left-wing ideology, think twice,” Blight said.

Despite, and perhaps because of, slavery’s intra- and international consequences, better educating students about Yale’s own history could be used as a great jumping off point for starting a broader dialogue about this history at large.

In a discussion following the report, editorials in the News called for Yale to form a truth and reconciliation commission similar to the University-led standing committee at Brown. “Yale cannot acknowledge its complicity in prior wrongs until it figures out what exactly those wrongs were,” the News’ board wrote in 2006.

Using a place that people know and care about like Yale as a point of access can help to familiarize an issue that for some students today seems distant or even irrelevant, Blight said.

“I work on this every day,” Blight says. “The Gilder Lehrman Center exists to deal with slavery’s legacy all over America and the world — Yale’s own local legacy is one small part. The place where this might have important resonance is to inform Yale students to face the past.”


Next year, the Gilder Lehrman Center will offer a “Human Trafficking and Modern Day Slavery Fellowship” for scholars to study historical and contemporary forced labor practices.

The history of slavery is also the history of the nation’s, and world’s, economy.

“There is and always has been in an advanced stage of wealth and civilization, a conflict between labor and capital.” Calhoun also said in his 1837 speech.

Yale has an economic identity that is not disconnected from larger economic forces of exploitation, MacKay said. The UOC, while working closely with the the labor unions and for financial aid reforms on campus, has helped to write this last chapter in Yale’s labor history.

Although Holloway agrees that the “abusive capitalist system is not far removed from the logic of the slavery system,” he warns that one must be careful not to trivialize or “diminish the true horror of slavery” while making comparisons.

The national debate, for now, has turned from reparation agendas to recession concerns.

“You can imagine how a decade out from now the University may revive this question about Yale’s past with slavery,” Blight said. “The past is sometimes as unpredictable in its uses as the future is unpredictable by its definitions.”

Comments

  • ycollege14

    This is so good Ava. Good work!

  • ROFLCOPTERSUX

    Great job, Ms. Kofman!

  • River_Tam

    > Although Holloway agrees that the “abusive capitalist system is not far removed from the logic of the slavery system,”

    Ugh. Way to ruin an interesting and well-written piece with this bit of nonsense.