Yale students, professors and community leaders convened Thursday to share initial findings from the working group exploring the University’s ties to racism and slavery.
Six student panelists, including Kahlil Greene ’22 and Eden Senay ’22, spoke of their personal experiences as Black students who attend Yale. The event was sponsored by the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition at the MacMillan Center at Yale, which is managing the working group, and the Afro-American Cultural Center. David Blight — Sterling Professor of history, African American studies and American studies — moderated the event, while Afro-American Cultural Center Director Risë Nelson gave the welcome address and introductions.
The working group is collaborating with representatives from other universities to research and present their findings. Thus far, the group has discovered that Yale trained ministers who went on to own enslaved people and that both free and enslaved people built Connecticut Hall. Enslaved men worked for more than 436 days to build the brick structure. The initial findings come months after University President Peter Salovey charged Blight, director of the Gilder Lehrman Center, with uncovering the University’s history and writing a report on Yale’s ties to slavery and abolition. The working group consists of faculty, at least one staff member, two members of the New Haven community, three archivists and four research assistants.
“The primary reason is to know from where you came,” Blight said. “As much as that’s a cliché, the primary reason frankly is not to just root out evil. … The purpose is to know the evolution of an institution and its relationship to the most important questions in the past.”
Greene first reached out to Blight, who is his senior thesis advisor, last November to develop Thursday’s event, specifically wanting to create a panel to discuss the working group’s findings with the broader Yale community. Greene said he hoped attendees would understand the “direct link” between slavery and African Americans and take action “to rectify what has happened.”
Senay said she hoped the panel would spark conversations. Although the working group’s initial findings were discussed, the primary focus of the panel was to “provide student leaders and researchers an opportunity to reflect on this history and its meanings today in their lives at Yale,” per the event registration.
“Essentially we’re just trying to get at what we want this project to yield, and how our conception of slavery and Yale’s relationship to it affects the way that we moves as students on this campus,” Senay told the News. “[We’re] trying to start a conversation on that.”
Senay, who is the co-president of the Black Student Alliance at Yale, said that Yale’s historical ties to slavery was an “evolving conversation,” and that the panel was just the beginning. She told the News that this conversation was one Black students “always have to reckon with,” but that it is important beyond the campus community. She said that other topics like gentrification should be included in the working group’s research.
Other panelists spoke about residential college namesakes, Black art and activism and diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives at the University.
At the panel, Blight explained the principles by which the University could rename buildings on campus. Blight was a member of the committee tasked with developing criteria for renaming buildings when Calhoun College was renamed Grace Hopper College.
The working group will continue meeting throughout the coming year and into the next academic year, Blight said, although the pandemic has delayed the work by temporarily closing some of the archives.
The group shared their initial findings with Kimberly Goff-Crews, who leads the belonging initiatives at Yale, in a Monday update. On Tuesday, Blight gave Salovey a brief update on the team’s initial findings.
Blight emphasized that the team’s charge was to conduct research, not to think about the outcomes of uncovering the information. Salovey and the Yale Corporation will decide what to do with the group’s findings.
The group’s work is about “reckoning with the past,” Blight said, but he added that it is not worthwhile to compare different universities’ roots in slavery. According to Blight, knowing the past helps people to understand the present.
“One of the things that you learn by doing this is how different the past is from the present,” Blight said. “But you also learn how the past and the present are always intermingled.”
To conduct its research, the group has consulted the Yale Book of Numbers — a book of University historical records that includes the names of every student, records from Yale’s first president and the oldest known map of New Haven.
“Some of this is just cool detective work,” Blight said.
The Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition was founded in 1998.
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