In an Oct. 14 email to the Yale community, University President Peter Salovey announced the formation of a working group of faculty, students, researchers and New Haven residents, led by history professor David Blight, that will explore ties to racism and slavery in Yale’s history.
The working group will produce a written report by December 2021. As Salovey described in the email, this group will include faculty members in the Departments of African American Studies and History, the Program in Ethnicity, Race and Migration and the Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity and Transnational Migration and will rely on the resources provided by the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition.
“As an American institution that is 319 years old, Yale has a complex past that includes associations, many of them formative, with individuals who actively promoted slavery, anti-Black racism, and other forms of exploitation,” Salovey wrote. “We have a responsibility to explore this history, including its most difficult aspects; we cannot ignore our institution’s own ties to slavery and racism, and we should take this opportunity to research, understand, analyze, and communicate that history.”
In just the last few years, the University has faced a number of complex issues regarding its historical ties to racism. Most significant of these was the decision in 2017 to rename Calhoun College after U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Grace Hopper GRD ’34 — ending the affiliation with the former U.S. Vice President and slave owner John C. Calhoun from the class of 1804.
Over the past several months, there have been calls nationwide to end the celebration of other men who played a role in the oppression of Black people in America. Among the discussed names is Elihu Yale due to his participation in the slave trade. Over the summer, #CancelYale became a nationally trending hashtag following a column by conservative pundit Ann Coulter titled “Yale Has to Go!” and the sentiment spread largely through others on the right attempting to undermine what they called the left-wing practice of “canceling.” Despite this attention, Salovey told the News at the time that the University is not considering changing its name.
At the heart of this new project, Blight told the News in an interview, is the importance of “knowing from whence you came.”
“There is a value of simply gaining perspective … How did we get here, how was this place built and who built it?” he said.
Blight noted that “the purpose of this study is not just to find the evil roots of Yale, but to find the multiple roots and to follow the truth wherever it takes us.” He emphasized that there is no political agenda driving his research.
Professor of history Edward Rugemer echoed Blight’s sentiments, saying that “it’s important for universities like Yale to explore its relationship to slavery,” and that this is “an important process for our country to go through to understand how we got here and what role slavery played in it.”
Rugemer also pointed out how other universities have undergone a similar investigation into their histories, naming Brown University, Harvard Law School and Georgetown University especially. He noted how Yale’s eventual report can serve as the foundation for further steps and changes to the University as a whole.
However, Rugemer, like Blight, pointed out that it remains to be seen what this report will conclude, so he is unable to say now what changes can or should be made. Taking the example of Georgetown, he said, it is now known as a result of their report that the Jesuits sold slaves in order to pay off the university’s debt. He added that it is unknown whether Yale’s establishment is as tied up in the exploitation of slaves, but if the report uncovers such a relationship, there will be a need for a serious discussion on the topic of reparations, as occurred at Georgetown.
The project will focus on Yale’s early history, especially its first 150 years. One of the specific subjects Blight cited as a focus of the project was the relationship between Yale’s training and education of ministers and the subsequent ownership of slaves by some of the ministers. The project team will also focus on the wealth that was accumulated to build and create Yale. A discussion will also occur on the anti-slavery movement that “at times had a foothold here at Yale,” according to Blight.
Blight also described the logistics of the project itself. It will run for over a year, with the goal of releasing a written report in December 2021. It will include a working group of faculty, at least one staff member, two members of the New Haven community, three archivists and four research assistants. They will conduct a series of public events and panels, bringing in representatives from other universities that have already gone through such an undertaking, to learn from their experiences.
Blight emphasized the involvement of current students in a public panel so that they may “weigh in on their sense of Yale’s history” and express their expectations for the project. Blight also suggested that there are discussions within the History Department to create a course titled “Yale and Its History with Slavery” taught by Rugemer and professor Carolyn Roberts.
Finally, Blight said that he hopes that the Yale community will “roundly debate” the report upon its release but stressed that “we don’t know what the outcome of this will be.” He worries about people approaching this report with pre-formed opinions on Yale and its history with slavery, but he hopes that students will try to be open-minded, adding “only the open mind is truly free.”
Blight has written several books on the topics of slavery, including “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom” and “A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom.”
Philip Mousavizadeh | firstname.lastname@example.org