Research on Yale’s historical ties to slavery prompts calls for reform
At the annual Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition conference, students and faculty presented research on Yale’s historical association with white supremacy and slavery.
Jessie Cheung, Staff Photographer
The Yale community is facing questions over how to reckon with the University’s ties to slavery and racism following new research presented at the annual Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition conference.
On Oct. 29 and 30, students, faculty and New Haven community members presented research examining Yale’s historical ties to slavery and racism. The conference comes in the wake of University President Peter Salovey’s Oct. 28 formal recognition of Yale’s historical ties to slavery. Salovey also announced that Yale would increase its annual voluntary payment to New Haven, erect a memorial recognizing enslaved people and initiate partnerships with historically Black and Indigenous universities. Salovey made the announcement in the keynote address that opened the conference on Thursday.
“I think most of this committee would say that we’re only scratching the surface, and that no one should understand the conference as concluding the important work,” said Willie Jennings, a committee member of the Yale and Slavery Working Group and theology professor at the Yale Divinity School. “If anything, it is just beginning to dig deeply into that history.”
The conference featured research from the working group, which Salovey commissioned in October 2020. Yale was the last Ivy League school to officially examine its history in regards to slavery.
In a session on the study of slavery and race at Yale, Bhasha Chakrabarti ART ’22, Patrick Hayes ’24 and Donasia Gray ’23 discussed their experience learning about this history in a classroom setting though the new undergraduate class “Slavery, Race, and Yale” and investigating through their own archival research.
Chakrabarti emphasized that the research conducted in the class helped inform her understanding of racism at Yale as it continues in the present.
“It was something that tied into my experience of being a student here and trying to feel less alone, or not feel like I’m going crazy,” Chakrabarti said. “How can I concretely build a narrative to explain the lived experience that that I’m having?”
Throughout the conference, speakers highlighted how the University has benefited from and actively participated in slavery and racism. Now, some students argue, it is time for the University to take action.
In her presentation, Chakrabarti said that Yale must make reparations to Black students in the University and the Black community in New Haven. Gray, who grew up in New Haven, emphasized the need for Yale to pay taxes and for Yale to reach out and open its doors to New Haven. Hayes discussed the importance for Yale to restructure the Yale Corporation to give people of color and New Haveners representation.
“[The University] will listen to students when we make a racket,” Hayes said. “So we should make a racket.”
On Oct. 27 the Yale Center for British Art redisplayed a painting of Elihu Yale and a shackled enslaved child, a controversial symbol of Yale’s past which was put under an extensive year-long investigation in the summer of 2020.
The conference held a break-out session discussion on Friday in which research leaders displayed their findings on the portrait. Courtney Martin, director of the Yale Center for British Art, spoke at the beginning of the event, and Senior Curatorial Assistant Abigail Lamphier, Coordinator of Cataloguing David K. Thompson and Head of Collections Information and Access Edward Town presented the committee’s research.
“As an art historian the painting held little significance for me, but as a person, I understood that the presence of that child in this painting was not benign,” Martin, who formed the research team, said at the opening of the session.
Although a driving purpose of the study was to discover the identity of the enslaved child, the committee explained that the child’s identity is still unknown. It has been determined that the boy appears to be 10 years old, and that he most likely served as a child attendant after being enslaved and brought to Britain. The majority of the presentation, however, focused not on the child, but on the three other men who surrounded Elihu Yale, assumed to be his two sons-in-laws and heir.
On Saturday, students and professors discussed Yale’s connection to the eugenics movement and medical practices tied to beliefs of racial inferiority. Nithya Krishnamurthy ’22 highlighted Yale’s links to the American Eugenics Society, which was founded in 1926 by Yale economics professor Irving Fisher.
AES was headquartered at the heart of Yale’s campus and run largely by Yale faculty. The society focused on “eugenic birth control,” and aimed to improve mankind by regulating the reproduction of those “deemed racially degenerate or feeble-minded.”
“The truth is that the people that make up Yale’s past have left in their wake an institution built upon their principles; students today take classes in the same rooms where professors have espoused principles of eugenics, in buildings named after men who profited from slave trade and labor,” Sami Elrazky ’22 said.
Mariko Rooks MPH ’22 also spoke about how the legacy of this history, and the refusal to acknowledge it, continues today.
Rooks said she does not see most professors “taking accountability” to present this history in class as an integral part to understanding the foundations of medical practices, especially with epidemiology and statistics. She argued that the conversation cannot consist merely of mentioning a certain scientific figure was a slave owner, but rather the foundational ways of measuring and quantifying people.
“We never sit with or reckon with any of this,” Rooks said.
According to Rooks, many of the core professors at the Yale School of Public Health are white, and student activists fighting for this history to be taught, especially in introductory courses, have faced major pushback.
Professor of ethnicity, race and migration Daniel HoSang compared IQ testing, a central focus of the eugenics movement, to the current emphasis on standardized testing in institutions of higher education.
“That’s not to say that [standardized tests] are inherently eugenic or bad, but it is to say that they come from this tradition, and we should understand their complicated legacies and figure out what role they play in our lives now,” HoSang said. “I think the best outcome of this conference is to raise a set of complex questions that aren’t easy to answer rather than thinking we’re just going to settle the historic record once and for all. This conference is not about adjudicating something. It’s about asking better questions.”