New tour reflects on Yale Law founders’ ties to abolition debates
A new tour of the Grove Street Cemetery, part of a new Law Library exhibit, aims to display direct links between the school’s founders, anti-abolitionist legislation and the denial of Black education in New Haven.
Mia Cortes Castro, Contributing Photographer
A new tour of Grove Street Cemetery is illuminating Yale Law School’s early ties to abolition debates in 19th-century Connecticut.
All three of the school’s founders were well-known for their involvement in cases revolving around slavery — David Daggett and Samuel Johnson Hitchcock in pro-slavery cases and Seth Perkins Staples in pro-abolition cases — that got Supreme Court recognition. All three are buried at Grove Street Cemetery.
Each stop on the tour was accompanied by a summary of the founders’ involvement in abolition-related legislation. Daggett, for example, was key in swaying the decision that Crandall’s boarding school be closed for admitting Black students.
“David Daggett was not only problematic on racial issues, but he also had a tremendous desire to deny education to black people,” Fred Shapiro, associate director for collections and special projects at the Lillian Goldman Law Library, said in an interview with the News. “Yale as a university I think has to attach a particular importance to this.”
The visit to Daggett’s obelisk was accompanied by a summary of his role in the Prudence Crandall case, in which he was key in swaying the decision that the Prudence Crandall boarding school be closed for admitting Black students. This decision, Shapiro explained, exacerbated the struggles for Black education in Connecticut for decades to come.
The tour accompanies a broader exhibit at the Lillian Goldman Law Library, “Race, Slavery & the Founders of Yale Law School”, curated by Shapiro and rare book librarian Kathryn James, and was led by Mike Morand, Director of Community Engagement at Beinecke Library and Yale Library Special Collections.
“This information of the early 19th century in New Haven is extraordinarily accessible, you just may not know it,” said Morand, a founding chair of the Friends of the Grove Street Cemetery. “Just like the library, the Cemetery is an archive, and we’ve done a lot to connect the two. You get a certain sense, in a place like this, of history made real.”
The Grove Street Cemetery is the first publicly chartered burial ground in the country and the first to be laid out as a city of the dead with streets and family plots.
The Yale Law School was founded at the initial collaboration of all three founders in 1824, but it is suggested by researchers that its real founding date was in 1826. The original three founders were each involved in critical parts of the establishment. Staples established its roots in his private law school operated out of his New Haven law office. He brought in Hitchcock, a former student of his, and the two were the proprietors of the school until bringing a third proprietor in in 1824, Daggett.
The Staples-Hitchcock school was listed under Yale College in 1826 and Daggett became the first professor of law.
The three founders have impressive obelisks announcing their importance in New Haven history. The tour highlighted how their legal influence perpetuated racism and slavery in New Haven, in order to accompany the archives put on display and discussed by the exhibit.
“I think the exhibit is a very straightforward historical study of the three founders of the Yale Law School and the issues of race and slavery that can be discerned from their context,” said James said in an interview with the News. “It is a study of the archival history of what is in the collections that relates to the history of the founders, and also of the ways that race and slavery were embedded in the New Haven community.”
Morand dedicated the remainder of the tour to highlighting Black American pioneers of New Haven, who are often overlooked and given little credit for their work.
Some of the graves visited included author of the first self-written narrative of a freed slave William Grimes and Bias and Margaret Stanley who are considered the first black philanthropists. In elaborating on each of their histories, Morand described them, among other things, as “compelling and inspirational”.
“When we think about the founders, we must also consider that they didn’t do anything alone,” Morand said. “They could only be off doing the nation’s business and other stuff because their households, blood households, married households and enslaved and indentured households, were in alliance. When we think about who the founders were, I think we need to be more capacious and consider who did the work and who was part of it.”
Additionally, Morand discussed the lives of other people buried who were against racial equity, such as Roger Sherman and Harris Ingersoll, who were both against the establishment of the first black college in the United States which, had it not been rejected in voting, would have been established in New Haven in 1831.
The tour concluded with a reminder to attendees of the importance of the individual histories of these New Haveners, urging them to put their knowledge of history to good use.
“This serves as a reminder that it’s up to us, that history is not fixed,” Morand told attendees. “History happened, so that part is fixed, but the future is not. We need to draw from what came before, try and understand it and do what we can to make it better.”
The exhibition opened on Sept. 27 and will remain open until Dec. 21 at the Lillian Goldman Law Library.