At the Whitney Humanities Center on Thursday afternoon, Massachusetts Institute of Technology history professor Craig Steven Wilder discussed the bearing of his 2013 book “Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities” on Yale’s own controversial relationship with slavery.
Roughly 180 undergraduates, graduate students, faculty and New Haven residents gathered to hear the talk, which was organized by the History Department. Wilder addressed the use of slaves to help fund northern and southern American universities in the 18th and 19th centuries, and discussed racist traditions and values which have survived on college campuses into the 21st century. And while the History Department booked the event before the University announced on Feb. 11 that Calhoun College would be renamed , a large portion of the audience’s questions following the talk focused on the recent name change and the reasoning behind it.
Wilder left audience members with questions about the distinction between erasing history and properly memorializing it. Wilder also expressed concerns, voiced by many Yale students in the wake of the name change, that the University should properly acknowledge the role of campus activists in the decision.
“The student activism that brought this about needs to be recognized and memorialized at the sites of these changes,” Wilder said. “Changing the name of a building is a perfectly fine corrective step, but it shouldn’t be the conclusion of the process.”
Wilder said the stone images of Calhoun’s face around Hopper College should not be removed, but rather used as an opportunity to discuss the historical importance of the name. He argued further that institutions always have an obligation to listen to the concerns of their students. College administrations should be proud that they attract students who want to become engaged with their campus communities, he said, to the point of addressing institutional barriers that might hinder such engagement.
Wilder noted specific historical moments that connected Yale to slavery, such as Ezra Stiles’ complicated relationship with his slave Newport, whom Stiles bought at the age of 10, and Benjamin Silliman’s advocacy for colonizing Africa with black Americans.
Wilder also discussed the more recent measures by colleges to address the role of slavery in their pasts. Some members of the audience suggested that Yale is lagging behind its peer institutions in addressing its connections to slavery, while others noted that Yale stands out as one of a handful of universities worldwide, with its Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition.
During the question and answer period, Wilder noted an incident during Yale’s 300th anniversary commemorations in 2001, in which graduate students concerned by Yale’s heavy emphasis on its connections to anti-slavery movements made a website detailing Yale’s connections to slavery.
“The work was being done by faculty and some dissenters, even though the institution wasn’t taking ownership of it yet,” Wilder said.
Attendees said they found the event interesting and relevant to current events at Yale and in New Haven. Tyler Miles ’20, who asked Wilder a question about the Calhoun’s renaming, said he found Wilder’s characterization of history as “a record of change and growth” to be particularly compelling.
Cassie Darrow ’18 said she went to the talk because she is in Hopper College, and even though she is proud of the name change, she still has concerns that the naming of the college after a white woman constituted erasure. Darrow said Wilder’s scholarship on the “violent sources of wealth” for American colleges helps illuminate how “sullied” money still makes its way into Yale through investments and donors.
María Lourdes Sabé-Colom, a senior lector in the Spanish and Portuguese Department, said that she came to the event because it is Black History Month and recent events on campus had stoked her interest in Yale’s relationship with slavery.
Julia Berger, a New Haven resident, took interest in how Wilder explored not only the history of Yale but other institutions such as Harvard, Columbia and Princeton. However, Berger said she was disappointed that audience members only seemed interested in the moral flaws of the past instead of the present.
History Director of Undergraduate Studies Alan Mikhail called Wilder the “perfect person” to discuss an issue of such relevance to the Yale community as slavery. He added that Wilder’s talk came as part of an initiative to do more campus wide events and “to show that the history major is cool.”
Wills Glasspiegel ’05 GRD ’21 raised a similar concern about the historical and intellectual arguments cited by defenders of Calhoun’s name, inquired as to how Wilder himself considered such arguments. In response, Wilder referenced what Anderson had called “an intellectual sounding concept [that] was weaponized into a conservative institutional movement.” Wilder lamented that the terms history and tradition are frequently “weaponized” to delegitimize the complaints of white women or people of color, and that history is by nature defined by change.
“We reflexively put upon people of color and students of color the burden of making everyone else comfortable,” Wilder said. “Part of what that does is it normalizes the notion that students and people of color should have to struggle in moments where everyone else is relaxed, so that Calhoun College becomes a black people problem rather than a Yale problem.”