It was August, the slowest month of the year for news, when the controversy broke.
A report written by three Yale doctoral candidates and published this summer, entitled “Yale, Slavery and Abolition,” alleged that nine of Yale’s 12 residential colleges were named for slave owners. And, according to the report, Yale alumni halted plans for what would have been the country’s first black college.
When students returned to Yale in September, talk of renaming residential colleges and reparations had spread. With labor negotiations looming, town-gown relations were already at a critical point.
Yale, the first university to award a doctoral degree to an African American and the site of the Amistad revolt, was, it seemed, not beyond the clutch of slavery.
Antony Dugdale, one of the report’s authors, has said that the report’s goal was to tell a “fuller story” of Yale’s relationship to slavery, which he said has largely been portrayed as an abolitionist effort.
Now, some scholars are charging that the report is a flawed piece of scholarship because it lacks historical context.
The director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition, David Brion Davis, said the report sacrifices historical accuracy and context for an inflammatory indictment of the university and suspects that the report was timed to coincide with impending labor negotiations.
Dugdale worked on the report as part of his paid full-time work as research analyst for Local 34. Dugdale is also a spokesman for the Federation of Hospital and University Employees. The report’s other two authors, J.J. Fueser GRD ’02 and J. Celso de Castro Alves GRD ’02, are members of GESO’s coordinating committee.
A monthlong Yale Daily News investigation has discovered that the report was financed, promoted and distributed with help from the federation, which includes the Graduate Employees and Students Organization, or GESO, and Yale’s recognized unions, locals 34 and 35.
“I think there were political reasons for bringing it out when it was brought out,” said Davis, a professor emeritus of history as well as director of the Gilder Lehrman Center. “It was not a work of objective scholarship by any means.”
During Yale’s tercentennial celebrations, Dugdale waited for Yale to acknowledge its full involvement with slavery, not only its abolitionist legacy. But the University was silent, Dugdale said.
He and fellow doctoral candidates Fueser and Alves began researching Yale’s relationship to slavery last spring independent of their graduate studies. Dugdale, Fueser and Alves are doctoral candidates in religious studies and philosophy, American studies and psychology, and history, respectively.
“There’s a story that hasn’t been told here at all,” Fueser said she remembered thinking.
The report presents excerpts from primary sources, some from Yale libraries, to show that nine out of the 10 men for whom Yale named its residential colleges were supporters of slavery.
The men include John Davenport, Jonathan Edwards 1720, George Berkeley, Jonathan Trumbull, Ezra Stiles 1746, Timothy Dwight 1769, Benjamin Silliman 1796, John C. Calhoun 1804 and Samuel F.B. Morse 1810.
The report, available online at www.yaleslavery.org, concludes with an appendix, cross-referencing Yale buildings with the positions their namesakes took on slavery.
“When we wrote the report, we were very careful not to turn it into a treatise for what Yale should do and not to say Yale should do this or do that,” Dugdale said.
The authors brought the report to the Amistad Committee, a local nonprofit organization whose primary aim is to commemorate the revolt aboard the slave ship Amistad.
Amistad Committee head Al Marder said he received a draft of the report six or seven months before its publication. Marder said the revelations contained in it were “shocking.”
“We felt that this deserved a great deal of attention,” Marder said. “It stunned us.”
The full story?
Upon reading the report, Marder said he insisted that scholars review the facts to ensure that there “would not be any pejorative remarks that would reflect personal bias.”
The report acknowledges the help of eight people, mostly professors, who read through drafts of the report.
“We wanted to be sure that we weren’t opening up a historical argument — whether this is true, that is true,” Marder said. “It isn’t where our sympathies lie. [We] have a deep historical responsibility.
“Our purpose was not to embarrass Yale.”
Marder said all the scholars who were asked to review the report were impressed by it.
But both Davis and Robert Forbes, the assistant director of the Gilder Lehrman Center, said neither were consulted in their capacities as scholars at the center, the only one of its kind in the country.
Dugdale said he wrote an e-mail to Davis during the writing, to which he said Davis replied that he did not have enough time to help. But Davis said he did not remember there being an e-mail exchange until after the report’s publication. Forbes, a member of the Amistad Committee, said that Marder handed him a copy of the report less than a week before its publication because of Forbes’ involvement with the committee, but that the authors did not contact him during the writing of the report.
Forbes said that this “maybe speaks to the function of the report being more about controversy than about looking for the most in-depth historical information.”
Forbes and Davis said that some egregious errors in the report could have easily been avoided.
“It’s actually really kind of irritating that the Yale community has accepted without challenge everything that was printed in that report, particularly when just a little bit of understanding of the scholarship would have led to different conclusions in many of the cases,” Forbes said.
“It was a very amateurish job,” Davis said. “[It had] the intent of just listing indictments against Yale without supplying any context.”
Yet Davis said a more well-written paper would not be less damaging to Yale, pointing to the North’s deep ties to slavery.
“It’s much worse than what the paper makes it out to be,” Davis said.
Yale’s Dwight Hall, a community service organization, has considered a name change in light of the report, putting Timothy Dwight especially under scrutiny for his views on slavery.
In order to prove that Dwight was in fact a slave owner, the report refers to a manuscript from Yale’s collection of the Dwight family papers.
In it, Dwight does affirm that he bought a slave in 1788, and the purpose of the document is to outline the conditions of her service. But Forbes said this manuscript cannot be read as simple proof of Dwight’s owning a slave. He said the manuscript in fact shows that Dwight bought the slave in question in order to free her.
Dwight writes in the manuscript, “I never intended her for a slave.”
Peter Dobkin Hall, a research associate of the Yale Divinity School who has done extensive research on Dwight, said he was “shocked” to learn of the report’s conclusion that Dwight was somehow pro-slavery.
“Dwight was probably New England’s most passionate and outspoken opponent of slavery,” Hall said.
In the report’s conclusion, James Hillhouse is listed as a Yale alumnus who was more anti-slavery than the men for whom Yale’s colleges were named.
Yet Hall said Dwight was more outspoken about his opposition to slavery than Hillhouse, who was politically conservative.
“He’s certainly not pro-slavery and he’s more or less been exonerated,” Hall said.
Hall also pointed out that Dwight’s closest proteges were Lyman Beecher and Leonard Bacon, both ahead of their time in their anti-slavery views. Beecher’s daughter, Harriet, wrote the anti-slavery novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
Forbes said the report leveled the most egregious accusations against Stiles, one of the earliest preachers against slavery.
In its conclusions, the report cites Samuel Hopkins 1741 as a Yale graduate abolitionist and not Stiles, even though the report cites both as co-authors of a letter denouncing slavery.
The report’s appendix summarizes Stiles’ public position on slavery with a single phrase: “slave-holder.”
Forbes said the only significant difference between the legacy of Hopkins and Stiles was that Stiles had a residential college named for him.
“It’s like fingernails on a chalkboard — to reduce these people to stick figures,” Forbes said.
Davis also took issue with the report’s account of the effort to found a “Negro College” in New Haven. He said the report again lacks context because it misses an important point. Nat Turner’s Rebellion, in which at least 55 whites were killed, had occurred two and a half weeks before the proposal for the college.
Davis said that if Yale had supported the college, the racial backlash “probably would have burned Yale to the ground.”
“I’m of the opinion that a misrepresentation of history never serves the good of the present in the long run,” Forbes said. “It’s very hard to build a movement for greater justice on injustice done to the reputations of people who lived in the past.”
Gerald Horne, a history professor at the University of North Carolina, and one of the scholars who read the report prior to its publication, spoke in its defense.
“After one has been in the business for a while, one can generally sense what is valid and what is not,” said Horne, whose area of concentration is 20th century African American history.
Horne was incensed at what he called the “quibbling” and “petty” criticisms voiced by Yale professors and criticized the Gilder Lehrman Center for not writing about Yale’s pro-slavery past.
“Now it’s left to students,” Horne said. “These students need to be congratulated.”
He added that the report sparked a necessary debate, and that Yale professors critical of the report would have remained quiet had the report not been published.
“Yale puts the food on their table, and they come in defense of their paymaster,” Horne said. “They should be giving these students awards.”
The authors of the report are not free of institutional affiliations either.
The report was financed, promoted and distributed by the Federation of Hospital and University Employees, which represents Yale’s unions.
Dugdale confirmed that he wrote the report as part of his full-time job as the research analyst for Local 34.
The report is clear about its relationship to the federation, thanking it in the acknowledgements.
The office of locals 34 and 35 and GESO mailed out 2,600 copies of the report, and while the Amistad Committee paid for postage, union sources confirm that the alliance donated money to the committee.
Virginia Blaisdell, a photographer and graphic designer for Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union — the parent union of locals 34 and 35 — confirmed that she designed www.yaleslavery.org as part of her normal duties on behalf of the union.
Dugdale said the unions were involved because they are committed to racial justice and to making Yale accountable for its past.
“There’s a need for institutional honesty,” Dugdale said. “The unions are all about — encouraging Yale to live up to its mission.”
Andrea Cole, who works closely with locals 34 and 35, hopes that unions’ involvement with the report is not grounds for the University to dismiss it.
“My concern is that if people are going to dismiss it as ‘Oh, this is just something the unions are doing,’ that is extremely disrespectful of issues contained in the report,” Cole said.
Yet, Cole concedes that no Yale administrator has publicly suggested that the report was part of a union public relations campaign.
“This report [and] other interventions in city politics are generally often part of the environment created prior to negotiations,” Yale President Richard Levin said.
Nevertheless, Davis and union affiliates agree on one point: the publication of this report sparked a good and important debate.
“Anybody who has lived in this community and reads the report, including University administrators,” Cole said, “has a responsibility to deal with it and not to simply sweep it under the rug.”
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