The Sweep of South College: The Life and Death of Osborn Allston
Throughout his life and even after his death, Allston was paradoxically beloved and degraded in the pages of the News.
At the corner of Chapel and High streets stands Vanderbilt Hall, one of the most prominent buildings on Yale’s Old Campus. Constructed in 1893, Vanderbilt Hall is among the oldest buildings at Yale. But before Vanderbilt Hall, there was Union Hall, also known as South College, which was part of Old Brick Row, the heart of Yale’s campus in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The face of Old Campus has changed in more than appearance and name, however. The buildings that occupy the space, and the faculty, staff and students who live and work there have all changed dramatically since the late 19th century. Among the changes to the landscape of the University is the absence of the “sweeps.” The sweeps were a group of predominantly Black men who carried out custodial duties in their assigned campus buildings.
Sweeps were an integral part of campus life in the 19th century. For members of the Yale community, the sweeps were well-known campus figures. Individual students and campus publications wrote about campus sweeps on several occasions, and are known to have organized fundraising campaigns to send sweeps on trips home and to cover their burial costs. For the sweeps, the job was a prestigious one. Many among them owned property and held elevated positions within African American communities in New Haven. Even so, the sweeps were underpaid relative to the costs of living in New Haven, and the financial hardship they experienced was noticed and documented by students in campus publications. In an 1884 Yale Daily News piece memorializing one sweep after his death, the News wrote: “His family was large, his pay small, and there was a morgage [sic] on his little home that demanded interest. … The College holds the mortgage and there may be an opportunity for our benevolence in rewarding a faithful servant.”
Among the many sweeps working at Yale in the 19th century, one man stands out as especially beloved and well documented. That man was Osborn Allston. Born in 1829, Allston was enslaved before the Civil War. In the years after the war’s end, Allston began working as a sweep in South College, where he would remain for seventeen years. During his tenure as South College’s sweep, Allston was well known among students for his friendliness. He was especially notorious for uttering the phrase, “Very well, thankee [sic], sir” upon greeting by students and faculty. His presence on campus was celebrated in several student publications, including the Yale Daily News, the Yale Courant, the Yale Literary Magazine and the Yale Pot-Pourri.
In the wake of his death in November 1884, Osborn Allston was memorialized across campus. A committee was formed to raise funds for a burial, and mournful eulogies were written expressing the student body’s grief at his loss.
As beloved as Allston was, the inequality of the environment and the racist paternalism of Yale’s student body is evident from the writing published about him by Yale students and publications.
During Allston’s tenure as the sweep of South College, racist humor was a feature of the Yale Daily News’s earliest editions. In the first ever issues of the Yale Daily News, the humor section, “Risibilia,” featured racist writing on a number of occasions before being discontinued in the News’ second month.
In spite of his vaunted status as the beloved sweep of South College, Allston was not spared the racial contempt of the student body. In several of the numerous pieces written about him, students referred to Allston with racial epithets and reduced him to his racial characteristics. In the preface to a Yale Courant poem written in his honor, Allston is described as “the café au lait sweep in South College.” In a Yale Daily News tribute written for him after his death, he is referred to as “the old black.”
Beyond the use of racial epithets, Allston’s manner of speech was imitated in writing on several occasions. The phrase “Very well, thankee, sir” is attributed to him in several variations, including “Very well, thankee, sir,” “Very well, thank ye, sah,” and “pretty well, thankee, sir.”
While the simple imitation of Allston’s speech may seem innocuous, it betrays an insidious attitude that he was more an ornamental piece of college life at Yale than a member of the community. Even though he was a beloved figure on campus, Osborn Allston was framed more in terms of students’ perception of him as part of Yale’s campus than his actual words, actions, and life experiences. In an 1884 Yale Daily News article about the beginning of the new academic year, Allston is included in the description of the physical setting of the campus: “The steeple of the old chapel has been painted a chaste brown, and the ruins of a bye-gone portico have been removed from the front of the building. The tree which was crowded into the corner between Farnum and the chapel has been cut down — a very great improvement, and Allston is “very well thankee, sir.”
In other student writing, Allston is framed as having been grateful for his enslavement before the Civil War. In an 1884 Yale Daily News tribute to Allston, his life as an enslaved person is described as follows: “He himself had been a slave, but fortunately had a kind-hearted ‘massa’ of whom Allston always spoke in grateful terms.” There is no record of any direct quotation of Allston speaking about his experience on his own behalf.
Outside of the way student publications described Allston, his relationship with Yale students and alumni appears to have been one characterized by paternalism. There is no doubt that Yale students did work together to support Allston; students financed a trip for Allston to visit his family in North Carolina for Christmas and a special committee was formed to pay for a gravestone in Grove Street Cemetery. Even so, the significant financial hardship Allston experienced was little more than another distinguishing character trait for the students of South College.
“There were times when Allston confided his troubles to us boys,” one Yale Daily News contributor wrote in a tribute to Allston. “And then those eyes grew dim with tears, but his smile grew only more tender. His family was large, his pay small, and there was a morgage [sic] on his little home that demanded interest. Sometimes it seemed as though he despaired of ever owning it, but we cheered him up as best we could and he always went off calculating how much would be paid by a certain date. The College holds the mortgage and there may be an opportunity for our benevolence in rewarding a faithful servant.” No evidence has been found indicating whether Osborn Allston was able to pay off his mortgage completely.
Turning to today, the legacy of Osborn Allston has faded in the memory of the Yale community. South College has been gone for nearly 150 years and the regiment of sweeps has largely been forgotten by current Yale students. The New Haven Correctional Center now stands in the place of the home address associated with Allston. For all the time that has passed, it may now be worthwhile to pause and take stock of where the Yale community stands now. Do elements of the paternalism that once characterized student relationships with Osborn Allston still exist today? How do Yale students interact with New Haven’s Black population? How does Yale as an institution treat its employees? These questions echo in the legacy of the historical Yale and the reality of the present one.