Courtesy of Tigerlily Hopson
Bishop George Berkeley stands at the front of the Berkeley dining hall, frozen in a faded and red painting. As students enter, they glance up at him and his long black robes. He gazes down, silent in the clatter of giggles, conversations and the clank of silverware. His solemn stare serves as an ever-present reminder of the dark depths of Yale’s past.
The namesake of Berkeley College was a slave owner, a supporter of slavery, and a believer, in the case of indigenous peoples, that “no part of the Gentile world are so inhumane and barbarous as the savage Americans.” For several decades, the question of who Yale honors has rung out on and off campus. In 2017, Calhoun College, named after a vicous proponent of slavery, was renamed as Grace Hopper College, and yet eight out of the 14 residential colleges carry names of slave holders or defenders of slavery.
“It’s definitely uncomfortable to know that you live, you eat, you play, you exercise in a place that was founded by someone who had beliefs that do not align with yours,” Michaela Wang ’25 said. When Berkeley students enter campus, they are thrust into a world in which they are expected to wear Berkeley’s name on shirts and lanyards, proudly yell his name out into the halls and smile up at his name ubiquitously plastered on posters and carved out into the walls. Should students learn the story behind the name they so quickly learn to embrace?
George Berkeley — Dean of Derry, Bishop of Cyclone in Ireland and famed 18th Century idealist philosopher — started his American journey with the purpose of setting up a seminary in Bermuda to “educate” and Christianize indigenous people. In his 1725 proposal, he outlined his strategy of kidnapping Native American children to gain pupils; he planned to procure indigenous youth “by peaceable methods” when possible, “or by taking captive the children of our enemies.” It was the colonizer’s duty, Berkeley believed, to “reclaim these poor wretches.” However, only “such savages” under 10 would be allowed into the seminary, “before evil habits have taken a deep root.”
Similarly, Berkeley believed that slavery was the best way to Christianize Black people and vigorously declared in his Bermuda proposal that enslaved people “to the infamy of England, and scandal of the world, continue Heathen under Christian masters,” because they had not been converted. To baptize enslaved people, he wrote, would be to the benefit of “their masters.” He concluded, “their slaves would only become better slaves by being Christian.”
According to the 1879 “Yale College: A Sketch of Its History,” edited by William L. Kingsley, Berkeley’s 1725 proposal “is the most extraordinary production of the kind ever published. It reads like a chapter from a romance.” In the Berkeley buttery, carved in the black stone panels which line the floor, it reads that Berkeley’s attempted seminary was a “great missionary effort.”
Out of the five Berkeley students interviewed, none knew details of George Berkeley or his beliefs. However, many said they navigate Yale under the assumption that buildings are named after those with troubling legacies.
“Judging by the fact that this is Yale and that this person was probably super old,” Jason Jiang ’25 said, “he probably was an asshole.”
While Berkeley waited for the proper funds from the British Parliament for his seminary, he bought 96 acres of land in Newport, Rhode Island that he described as “fit for cows and sheep and may be of good use in supplying our college at Bermuda.” In October 1730, he purchased three enslaved people: 14-year-old Philip, 20-year-old Edward (later referred to as Anthony) and Agnes, whose age is unspecified. Philip, Anthony and Agnes lived and worked on the farm, sleeping on stone pallets in the cellar by the cooking fireplace.
“It’s really important to address these things rather than hide them away or sweep them under the rug,” Michael Ying ’24 said in regards to Yale’s shadowed past.
But, no one ever tells students the history behind their college’s name, explained Charlotte Emerson ’22, who is a Berkley FroCo and knew little herself about Berkeley himself. Emerson felt that this history “could be easily integrated” into an opening address to Berkeley first-years, such as how Dean Marvin Chun began his first-year address with a land acknowledgement, something new for Yale and quickly becoming commonplace.
Head of College David Evans’ speech during the first-year dinner on Aug. 31 spent a few paragraphs discussing George Berkeley — the Americanizing of his name which was originally pronounced “Barkley,” his philosophical beliefs and successes, his pointed bishop’s hat and his contributions to higher education — there was no mention of anything beyond this.
“We occupy this space under the watchful eye of our benefactor and patron saint George ‘Barkley,’” Evans announced as Berkeley stared down from the wall.
Wang questioned if the first-year dinner was the space to call out the gory aspects of Berkeley’s past, but emphasized that Berkeley students should not “live in oblivion” about the history of their college. Wang proposed having a community conversation on this topic as a starting point, perhaps led jointly with a cultural center that is “versed in the language and talking about these issues.”
Evans has a lot to balance and consider when bringing up these conversations, including alumni and former staff member perspectives along with those of the current Berkeley community, but acknowledged “a form of recognition is needed at a university-wide level” to recognize Yale’s role in “American genocide and slavery.”
Ezra Stiles College in 2016 installed a plaque memorializing the lives of Stiles’ one enslaved person and two indentured servants. As for Berkeley, he suspects that a plaque could be put up “without much bureaucracy.”
In November 2016, a Yale report was published establishing the principles on renaming, which was used in renaming Calhoun College to Hopper College. Several students voiced confusion on why other colleges’ names were not changed at this same time. The report emphasizes that changing a name should be a highly exceptional event, and states, “the presumption against renaming is at its strongest when a building has been named for someone who made major contributions to the university.” Berkeley is known as one of Yale’s most generous early benefactors.
In 1731, after still not receiving the proper financing for his planned seminary, Berkeley returned to Europe. Before he left, he baptised the three people he held enslaved, but did not free them, and donated his land to the Yale Corporation. He also donated a collection of 880 books, increasing the Yale library by half at the time. In 1762, Yale leased the farm to Captain John Whiting for 999 years; the lease passed through many hands until settling with The Colonial Dames of America of Rhode Island in 1899. The annual profits Yale gained went to fund the education of a few chosen Yale scholars fluent in Greek and Latin. In 1972, Yale ceded the title to the house, but still owns the Whitehall farm. When the lease expires in the year 2761, Yale will gain back full control of the property.
The first Yale scholarships were funded by enslaved labor. Those who rented the Whitehall land in the 18th and 19th centuries, such as Captain Silas Cooke who held the lease from 1776 to 1780, had enslaved people working and caring for the land. When an enslaved man who worked as a distiller at the Whitehall farm ran away, Cooke sought to have him arrested and exclaimed that “if any Body in Providence wants such a fellow [I] will sell him cheap.” On the Rhode Island census of 1774, Charles Handy, who owned the lease before Cooke, is shown to have four Black people living in his household, and it can be assumed these individuals were held enslaved.
Apart from Yale, Berkeley’s name is on buildings across the world, including most famously the city and university in California. Trinity College Dublin in Ireland, Berkeley’s alma mater, publicly debated removing Berkeley’s name from one of its libraries last year. Evans noted that name changing is above his level of authority and must be guided by the newly established renaming principles, but that ultimately, if Yale decided to rename Berkeley College, “such action wouldn’t happen overnight.”
“In the meantime, every day, I’ll do what I can to promote the association of our name with diversity, belonging and mutual respect,” Evans said.
For many at Yale, the name Berkeley has become detached from the person. Yet George Berkeley’s image still haunts us as Berekelyites try to reform and redefine the college beyond a name.
“I separate the name from the place,” Kim Lagunas ‘25 explained. “We are definitely not holding those beliefs, and that’s what I care about.”
While Emerson talked with the News, she perpetually looked up at the hanging portrait of Berkeley, still in the midst of the never-ending movement of the dining hall. What would truly acknowledging and taking action on this past look like?
“Maybe his portrait shouldn’t hang in our dining hall,” she announced. Perhaps there is an opportunity to “find another Berkeley.”