A Yale School of Management experience is incomplete without a photo beside the “Yale School of Management 165 Whitney Ave” sign in front of the building. And it’s not just SOM students: recent grads, newly accepted students, families and visitors stop for a selfie, quick pose and even a professional photoshoot. The striking modern aesthetic of Evans Hall makes for great photos, and the sustainable design complements SOM’s mission to educate leaders for business and society. Yet, for every photo taken by the SOM sign, there is a reminder of the history of Eli Whitney and the Whitney family. 

Eli Whitney began his studies at age 24 and graduated from Yale three years later, in 1792. Two years later, Eli Whitney patented the cotton gin, cementing his legacy. He is also famous for first pioneering manufacturing techniques, creating uniform processes and designing interoperable parts for his gun armory in Hamden. Dubbed Whitneyville, it was one of the first factory compounds in the country that inspired factories decades after that. 

His son, Eli Whitney, Jr., continued the family business and sold tens of thousands of rifles and handguns to the federal government and state militias. Although born in New Haven, he attended Yale before transferring to Princeton, where he graduated. After college, he returned to New Haven to manage the armory and developed the Whitneyville Colt revolver. Later, he was pivotal in developing the first water utility for New Haven. It is impossible to separate New Haven and America’s early industrialization from the Whitney family. 

The proliferation of the cotton gin, short for “engine,” led to the South becoming the global leader in cotton production. Eli Whitney believed the cotton gin would reduce dependence on slavery. Tragically, the invention tripled the demand for enslaved labor, grew Southern wealth and exacerbated America’s political, social and economic divisions. Although the cotton gin was ultimately not profitable to Eli Whitney due to weak intellectual property protections, his gun manufacturing business was profitable and supported the federal government’s westward expansion. 

His son’s most famous invention, the Whitneyville Colt revolver, was used by Texas Rangers, who actively fought Native Americans in Texas and the Mexican-American War. Although he developed the first water utility for New Haven, his chief concern was supplying his armory with additional power. His sizable stake in the water company grew his wealth, and he used the water to create a company serving the city’s iceboxes with access to the water. The water enabled him to improve and consolidate the armory. With a lucrative water business, the grandson sold the armory in 1888. Eli Whitney, Jr. passed away in 1894. 

The Whitney Family’s impact on American history is to be studied, not celebrated. The cotton gin, the Colt revolver and the Whitney family’s business practices do not represent the best of Yale. The University can and must do better. Yale should rethink marketing Eli Whitney for its academic programs and support renaming Whitney Avenue along campus, which includes SOM and Science Hill. Yale’s centuries-long history is brimming with candidates who can serve this role.

One of the benefits of being a Yalie is learning about the University’s 321-year history. Some of my favorites include the birth of neuroscience and the Cushing Center’s display of human brains, a statue of Yung Wing, the first Chinese person to graduate from a university in North America in 1854, the extra-wide wooden seat in Woolsey Hall made for the extra-wide President Taft in 1913,  the first doctorate awarded in North America in 1861 and to an African American, Edward Bouchet in 1876. 

The story of Edward Bouchet is remarkable. His father was enslaved to a Yale student, who brought him to New Haven from Charleston, SC, and freed him upon graduation, as the State of Connecticut had a gradual abolition law that took full effect by 1848. His father became a “sweeper” — custodial staff — for the University and was active in the community. Edward excelled at science and later graduated valedictorian in high school. He was sixth out of 124 in his class at Yale, becoming one of the first African Americans to graduate from Yale. Edward returned to Yale to earn a doctorate  in Physics, the first African American in the US to earn a doctorate., in 1876. Employment opportunities were minimal, and he taught science at a segregated high school with few resources. The school later cut his program and job to provide only vocational classes. He retired in New Haven and died in 1918. 

The Yale & Slavery Research Project concluded its work last year by illuminating some of the histories of “sweepers,” among others, through featured research, conferences and events. However, the Project did not address the role of the Whitney family and Yale’s current use of the Whitney name to promote academic programs. 

Yale should keep Eli Whitney in the history books but publicly celebrate those who represent the ethos of the University. Bouchet Avenue is a step in the right direction. 


ROBERT LUCAS is a current MBA student in the Class of 2023 and former Kerry Fellow (2021-22). He can be reached at robert.lucas@yale.edu