An essay written by three Yale doctoral candidates has sparked a debate about the role Yale figures played in the slavery and abolitionist movements centuries ago.
In “Yale, Slavery and Abolition,” Antony Dugdale, J.J. Fueser and J. Celso de Castro Alves detail the relationship of several prominent Yale graduates and past administrators with America’s slavery past. Now, a New Haven group is calling on the University to rename colleges that honor men who supported slavery.
But Yale professors who study slavery said the study is flawed in some respects.
“There are a number of aspects where the interpretation is strained,” said Robert Forbes, associate director of Yale’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition. “There are a couple of points that I would describe as wrong.”
Dugdale is a researcher for Local 34, the Yale clerical employees’ union, and Fuesser and Alves are members of the Graduate Employees and Students Organization, which is attempting to form a teaching-assistant union. The Federation of Hospital and University Employees has publicized the report. The report was published by New Haven’s Amistad Committee, Inc.
In the 60-page essay, the authors write that 10 of the 12 residential colleges were named after slave owners or men who supported slavery.
The authors include Davenport, Jonathan Edwards, Berkeley, Trumbull, Ezra Stiles, Timothy Dwight, Silliman and Calhoun on their list of slave owners. Samuel Morse, according to the essay, was a slavery supporter, who believed that “abolitionists should be excommunicated.”
“No one should think that we endorse that part of Morse’s history,” Morse Master Frank Keil said. “It is repugnant.”
Forbes said the labelling of Timothy Dwight, Ezra Stiles and Benjamin Silliman as “slave-holders” is strained interpretation of history.
However, Forbes was pleased that the essay has drawn attention to the Gilder Lehrman Center by bringing attention to its research, “sparking a dialouge in New Haven.”
“The main value or function of the report is to provide an example of what an ideal lab Connecticut is for exploring the theme of slavery and freedom,” said Forbes, who is familiar with study’s authors from their past work.
The authors write that while Vice President John C. Calhoun, who promoted slavery, was honored as the namesake of a residential college, other Yale graduates who took an anti-slavery stance were not properly recognized on campus.
One of these men is James Hillhouse, whom Yale does not honor with a building, but whom New Haven honors with a street and a high school. Hillhouse made significant contributions both to Yale’s history as treasurer for 50 years and to the history of anti-slavery activism.
Furthermore, the article outlines how Yale “squelched,” the first attempt to establish an all-black college in the United States, which would have been located in New Haven.
According to the essay, a committee of influential members of Yale’s past including Augustus Street, for whom Street Hall is named, successfully blocked the effort by white equal-rights activist, Simeon Jocelyn.
The essay argues that Yale prospered in the early years as a result of money earned or donated because of slavery.
“Three of the financial endowments that allowed Yale to thrive in its early days depended upon slavery: Yale’s first endowed professorship, Yale’s first scholarship fund, and Yale’s first endowed library fund,” the authors write.
Fueser and Dugdale said they deliberately avoided including a “perscription” for future action in the essay.
“The most important thing is that we have a broad dialouge including faculty, undergraduates and local people,” Dugdale said.
A group of New Haven residents last week took the authors up on their suggestion and urged the University to rename Morse College as “James Hillhouse College” and Calhoun as “James Pennington College,” after a New Haven abolitionist.
President Richard Levin said, colleges names aside, the University has made significant contributions to the improvements of the lives black Americans.
“I think the fact that the senior fellow of the Corporation is African-American speaks volumes,” Levin said. The senior fellow, Kurt Schmoke ’71, is chairman of Yale’s board of trustees.