A Lasting History: Yale confronts racism in past and present
In the past two years, Yale has been forced to grapple more directly with its ties to slavery and racism.
Tigerlily Hopson, Contributing Photographer
On display in the Yale Center for British Art is a painting of Elihu Yale — the namesake of Yale University — being served by an enslaved child, his neck ensnared by a padlocked collar.
The 18th-century painting, titled “Elihu Yale with Members of His Family and an Enslaved Child,” is a visual manifestation of Yale’s role in racism and the slave trade. The gaze of the shackled African American child indicates the dark depths of Yale’s sorted past — one which the University has just begun to wrestle with, and one which seeps into the present day.
Over the past two years, in the shadow of the police murder of George Floyd, there has been an ongoing University-wide effort to grapple with the racism in the Yale’s past — through conferences, educational workshops, classes and conversations. These efforts have given new insights into Yale’s history with racism and slavery, but they also leave many seeking action in regards to current issues of race on campus.
“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.
In October 2020, University President Peter Salovey established the Yale and Slavery Working Group — a collection of faculty, students, researchers and New Haven residents, led by history professor and Director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition David Blight, set to examine Yale’s relationship to slavery. Yale was the last Ivy League college to establish such a committee and address its historic bonds with the slave trade.
The following year, in October 2021, the working group presented its findings through the 2021 annual Gilder Lehrman Center conference. In his keynote address to the conference, Salovey officially acknowledged Yale’s ties to slavery — an act unprecedented for the University.
“Yale, much like the rest of America’s oldest institutions of higher education, has seldom if ever recognized the labor, experiences and the contributions of enslaved people and their descendants to our university’s history or to the present,” Salovey said at the conference. “So, today, we are acknowledging that slavery and the slave trade are part of Yale’s history. Our history.”
The discoveries made by the working group demonstrated a range of University involvement in racism and slavery. The group uncovered that enslaved people had worked on the construction of Connecticut Hall — the red brick window house stationed on Old Campus — and that many early leaders of the University held enslaved people.
In 1831, leading figures at Yale actively worked with city leaders to prevent the establishment of a college for Black students in New Haven. The American Eugenics Society was stationed on Yale’s campus in the 1920s, and was founded and largely run by Yale faculty.
Additionally, eight out of the fourteen residential colleges are named after slave owners. Included in this list are Jonathan Edwards, who owned a succession of enslaved people including a teenage girl named Venus and a 3-year-old child named Titus, and defended the institution of slavery as a means to “civilize” Black people, and George Berkeley, who owned at least three enslaved people, including a 14 year old named Philip, and aimed to create a seminary which would “educate” and “reclaim” kidnapped Native American children. Yale’s first scholarships came from the profits of a farm worked on by enslaved people given to Yale by Berkeley.
“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.”
During Salovey’s address at the conference, he laid out three action steps to confront this history — to create a memorial honoring the enslaved and indigenous people of Yale’s past, to strengthen connections with historically Black and tribal colleges and universities and to increase Yale’s voluntary payment to the city of New Haven.
However, as of the end of April, public-facing progress has not been made on the former two goals. For the latter, Yale announced in November that it would increase its voluntary contribution by $52 million over the next six years.
“In light of [Yale’s] endowment, in light of what they’re capable of, I think we’re well past the conversation,” Jadie Meprivert, a New Haven resident who attended the Yale and Slavery conference, told the News. “The conference felt just like that, it was another conversation. … We are missing action.”
Since the conference, the Yale and Slavery Working Group’s research has continued, and they have presented their findings to the public through Mondays at Beinecke online gallery talks and other events organized by the Gilder Lehrman Center. Two new undergraduate classes were offered this year: “Slavery, Race, and Yale” taught by Professors Edward Rugemer and Crystal Feimster, and “Eugenics and Its Afterlives” taught by Professor Daniel HoSang. Students conducted their own research on the University’s history for these classes, which was presented at public symposiums sponsored by the Yale and Slavery Research Project.
But, racism is not just an issue of Yale’s past. For many students and staff, racism is a daily reality on the University’s campus.
“It seems like we have these lofty goals for the future, but we haven’t really sat with the ways that racism is very much alive,” Jathan Martin DIV ’21 GRD ’27 told the News.
In October 2020, Yale School of Nursing students explained to the News that it was “terrifying” to be Black at the school, describing the environment for Black and Brown students as “hostile.” Students criticized outdated and exclusive curriculum, offensive remarks by faculty and a lack of diversity in students and staff.
After Yale Divinity School Dean Greg Sterling acknowledged the school’s historical complicity in racism and laid out plans for change in December, students expressed to the News ways in which racism was still alive and well within the Divinity School’s walls.
A copy obtained by the News of a soon-to-be-released report from the Yale Mathematics Department demonstrates student and employee dissatisfaction with departmental diversity and inclusion. Just 18 percent of almost 200 respondents indicated some level of satisfaction with diversity in the department, and 33 percent reported having an “uncomfortable, discouraging, or alienating” experience within the department.
At the Office of Development, employees have reported an unhealthy workplace environment, describing racial tension and COVID-19 safety concerns. Staff members spoke to the News in October about incidents of racial insensitivity, complex hierarchy and an unreasonable amount of supervision in the office.
Critique has also been given to lack of diversity and inclusion in Yale curriculum. Within the field of science, students have expressed how eugenics is entangled into the STEM curriculum, something faculty across scientific disciples — from the History of Science, History of Medicine to Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry — are beginning to address.
“All of this is so left out of the curriculum, or like very tangentially mentioned if at all,” Emme Magliato ’23 said when speaking about her experience with eugenics in STEM courses at Yale.
The history of Yale lives on. In Grace Hopper College, the college’s former namesake, John C. Calhoun, the cruel slave owner and pro-slavery activist, can still be found imprinted in its walls. And, on the fourth floor of the Yale Center for British Art, the enslaved child in the metal collar looks onward from the cracking pigment.
The Yale and Slavery Working Group’s research can be found on their website.