A new plaque in Ezra Stiles College pays tribute to three men whose lives were controlled by the college’s namesake.
“As a leading minister and intellectual in the 18th century, Ezra Stiles controlled the lives of three young people. Two were African American and one was Native American (Western Niantic). One was a slave (he was manumitted), and the others were indentured servants, but none were free. We remember them here,” reads the plaque, which Stiles Head Stephen Pitti announced in a Facebook post Wednesday evening.
The plaque — which went up outside the college dining hall earlier this week — inserts Stiles into a racially charged naming debate that last year focussed primarily on Calhoun College. Pitti, who also runs the new Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity and Transnational Migration, outlined plans for the plaque in an email to the college community last May.
“It is certain that [Stiles] was never a white supremacist of the 19th-century sort,” Pitti wrote. “But there’s no ignoring the fact that this abolitionist, minister, and university president lived in a world in which slavery played a prominent role, that he was a slaveholder for a time, and that he served as the master of two indentured servants.”
“Signs on a wall rarely capture complexity,” he added. “But they can start conversations.”
Ezra Stiles, an American academic and minister, served as the president of Yale for 17 years in the late 18th century. As a young man, Stiles purchased a 10-year-old black boy named Newport, who worked for him as a slave for more than two decades, even as he publicly inveighed against the “great inhumanity and cruelty” of slavery.
Newport was freed in 1778, the same year Stiles became president of Yale. But four years later, Stiles hired Newport as a free man, on the condition that Newport’s son, Jacob, work for him as an indentured servant. Jacob served Stiles alongside another boy, a Native American named Aaron, until Stiles’ death in 1795.
Over the past few years, the complicated history of Ezra Stiles has generated intermittent discussion in the college community. And as those conversations intensified last spring — in the wake of University President Peter Salovey’s announcement that name of Calhoun College would not change — students and faculty coalesced around the idea of a plaque honoring Stiles’ slaves and servants.
“Students in this college have been excited for years to discuss Ezra Stiles as an historical figure, including his support of the Jewish community in Rhode Island, his ideas about race and gender, and other topics,” Pitti told the News. “Our new memorial plaque of course calls to mind three individuals whose histories are not so well documented, whose lives have been mostly forgotten, whose stories raise new questions about the past and present, and who leave us wanting to know more.”
Pitti said the Stiles College Council has an elected student historian whose job it is to investigate such matters and give presentations on the history of the college’s namesake.
Abhijoy Mitra ‘17, the current student historian, said the plaque epitomizes the honesty and diversity that have always characterized the Stiles community.
“Its addition to Stiles is symbolic and very progressive – no different from what the college and Professor Pitti have always stood for,” Mitra said. “Like any other important discussion, the plaque is only a beginning, and it’s the people reading it who lend it meaning.”