For a social justice organization like Dwight Hall, the revelation that its namesake, former Yale President Timothy Dwight, was a supporter of slavery poses an understandable challenge.
In response to this summer’s release of “Yale, Slavery and Abolition,” the Dwight Hall Cabinet considered changing the organization’s name. While the cabinet’s unanimous decision to retain the name Dwight Hall was a wise one, the compromise solution revealed Sunday night remains problematic.
Now a plaque will inform visitors that “Dwight Hall at Yale renounces the pro-slavery thought and actions of Timothy Dwight, while reaffirming our predecessors’ work on behalf of justice and equality.”
Timothy Dwight’s positions, as articulated in the report, indeed seem repugnant. And certainly no one should ignore the horrors of American slavery or the moral bankruptcy of the arguments by which it was defended.
But it should be equally obvious that Dwight Hall is an organization committed to the betterment of people of all races, and especially dedicated to the welfare of the local community. Through its ongoing and relentless commitment to public service and equality, Dwight Hall has made it resoundingly clear that the group has nothing in common with its namesake’s advocacy of slavery.
To suggest that Dwight Hall today must in some way atone for Dwight’s sins is ludicrous. Often, there exist accusations which neither require nor merit answers. Responding to such charges gives them a gravity they ought not possess; giving them the spotlight gives them more attention than they deserve.
Lamentably, by protesting too much to the contrary, the current Dwight Hall leaders have actually stimulated the perception that they have something to answer for. But by issuing a disclaimer where none is necessary, Dwight Hall’s leadership has assumed a defensive posture which actually heightens the impression that the present organization must do something to compensate for the sins of its forbearer.
More problematic still was the announcement of new initiatives to combat racial prejudice, possibly in association with Yale’s cultural houses and the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Racism, Slavery and Abolition.
To be sure, these efforts themselves are laudable, and no one ought to dispute the value of combatting racism. Yet announcing such initiatives in response to the moral failings of a man long dead suggests that Dwight Hall has confused community service with face-saving posturing. At worst, the effort could be read as an exercise in patronizing tokenism, which would be even more counterproductive.
Dwight Hall should take pride in its current contributions to the community and take heart that none could conflate its activities with Timothy Dwight’s racism. The organization should carry on its noble tradition of serving the needy, rather than attempting to alleviate a misplaced transgenerational guilt. Otherwise, it risks tarnishing its hard-earned reputation — the very problem it set out to avoid.