The Corporation Room in Woodbridge Hall is a place few Yale students ever go. Looming over the massive wood table and elegant white molding is a painting of Elihu Yale, portrayed dressed in his 18th-century best. Kneeling before him is an African slave in chains and a metal collar.
The painting’s location makes it both prominent and obscure. It is hung at the meeting place of Yale’s governing body, and yet it is hidden from its day-to-day life. It is visible only at the semi-secret center of the economic and intellectual power of the University. This is a strange way for Yale to choose to represent its roots in the time of slavery and colonialism, and serves as a metaphor for Yale’s ongoing problems with issues of race and power, justice and injustice.
The issues raised by the painting are not merely problems of representation. What it points to, first of all, is the ways in which Yale’s history is entwined with the history of slavery. This history is documented in a report called “Yale, Slavery and Abolition” published in 2001 by three Yale graduate students. Phillip Livingston, the report recounts, who created the University’s first endowed professorship in 1745, was a prominent New York slave trader. Bishop George Berkeley personally owned slaves and created Yale’s first scholarships with the profits from his Rhode Island plantation. Berkeley donated the plantation itself to the University, which means that Yale’s own land was worked by slaves. Jonathan Trumbull served as governor of Connecticut during the time when slavery was most prevalent here and owned slaves himself. Yale President Timothy Dwight and professor Benjamin Silliman also held slaves.
John Calhoun, whose name, along with Dwight’s, Silliman’s, Trumbull’s and Berkeley’s, marks a residential college, used his 40-year political career, including two terms as vice president, to preserve the practice of slavery in the United States. Calhoun is one of Yale’s most historically important graduates, and he remained a proud slave owner to the end. Yet it was not until 1930, long after formal emancipation, that Yale decided to name a building after Calhoun.
Nor are these matters of purely historical or academic concern. Just as Yale benefited financially from slavery in the past, Yale continues to reap the benefits of an economic and political order based on inequality. Yale’s status as a nonprofit, for example, means that it pays no property taxes to the city of New Haven. The savings help Yale to provide a world-class education to its students, while New Haven struggles to fund its public schools adequately. While Yale does pay the city a voluntary contribution, the amount is still far less than what Yale would give up if it were a for-profit institution.
Even Yale’s undergraduate life continues to be stained by the problem of racism. The recent controversies over racially offensive jokes printed by the Rumpus and the Record show that much work needs to be done to overcome stereotyping and bigotry. What troubled me in particular about the debates that occurred in the wake of the publication of the offensive material, was that so many white students were so quick to excuse away a litany of “jokes” that were indisputably offensive to many. We white students enjoy a great deal of privilege because of the color of our skin. In the same way that Yale grew to be a powerful and prestigious institution partly through profits derived from slavery, our privilege flows partly from the economic advantage of not being descendants of slaves.
The history of slavery and its continuing legacy contains both an indictment and a call to action. The reason we cannot simply excuse Trumbull, Dwight, Calhoun and the rest is that there were those who lived in the same historical periods who rejected and actively fought against slavery. James Hillhouse, for example, who served as Yale treasurer for 50 years, was one of the earliest and strongest opponents of slavery in Congress in the years after independence. Hillhouse investigated a way to end the slave trade as early as 1799 and fought to stop the importation of slaves into the Louisiana Purchase, to name just two of the things he fought for. “I consider slavery a serious evil,” he said, “and wish to check it wherever I have the authority.”
Yale’s spirit, then, is not irredeemable. Yale has produced leaders who have worked on both sides of the great moral crises of their times. Our university’s legacy is what we make of it. We cannot erase the condemnable parts of our history — the painting in the Corporation Room proves this — but the choice is ours to confront the past head-on and cultivate racial and economic justice in the present.
Jared Malsin is a senior in Berkeley College. His column appears on alternate Mondays.