Beinecke event highlights failed effort to make New Haven the site of America’s first HBCU
The Beinecke Library hosted an event to commemorate the unsuccessful attempt to establish the first HBCU in America in New Haven.
Kenisha Mahajan, Contributing Photographer
Yale’s Beinecke Library hosted an event reflecting on the unsuccessful effort to establish the United States’ first Historically Black College/University in New Haven.
The event, which was called “New Haven 1831: What Was and What Could Have Been,” was held on the 192nd anniversary of the very town meeting in 1831 where the proposal for the college was struck down in a 700-4 vote.
“Anniversaries are always great because they allow us to time travel in a sense. It prompts us to say that September tenth was the day that decision was denied, but let’s not make it a bad thing, let’s bring greater awareness to this story,” said Tubyez Cropper, program manager of community engagement at the Beinecke.
The exhibit featured an array of documents and a short film spotlighting the contributions of New Haven residents, abolitionists and free Black people to establish the first postsecondary education institution for people of color in America.
From letters between Timothy Dwight and civil rights activist Bias Stanley to copies of William Lloyd Garrison’s “The Liberator,” the event displayed primary sources that storied the fight to establish this institution — mapping out the networks between individuals from the South to New York and Connecticut that wove a rich tapestry of the movement.
Despite the “revolutionary” nature of the proposal to establish the college and the notable figures who played a role in it, the story of the effort, according to Beinecke staff the News spoke with, has hardly been told. Cropper said that he had not heard the story until Michael Morand ’87 DIV ’93, who is the director of community engagement at the Beinecke, told Cropper about it.
“The story of 1831 is an essential story of New Haven history, of Yale history, of Connecticut history, of American history, that had been somewhat neglected and forgotten,” Morand told the News.
Black and white abolitionists convened for a meeting in Philadelphia in 1830 where they developed the idea of founding the country’s first HBCU. These activists decided New Haven would be the ideal place for the college to be founded.
A centerpiece of the event was the screening of Cropper’s film “What Could Have Been,” which was produced by the Beinecke Library. On the screen, visitors could see both the well-known and relatively unknown history come together to illuminate the efforts to establish the HBCU.
From sleepless nights of editing a script to working with limited documentation of historical figures, Cropper described the process of creating the film as “exhaustingly rewarding.” The film was designed to capture the efforts to establish the HBCU from the perspective of a New Havener in 1831. Cropper said he utilized the archives that were laid out for display at Sunday’s event as well as other historical documents for the film.
The film has previously been screened in libraries, schools and other public venues, which Cropper said he hopes will help New Haveners recognize this story as a part of their history.
Elisa Cruz ’26, who grew up in East Haven and attended a New Haven public school before coming to Yale, said she felt that despite her history classes’ focus on local history, she had never learned about the attempt to establish an HBCU in New Haven.
“The reason I learned about this was through a TikTok,” Cruz said, “I just thought it was crazy that we hadn’t learned this. Why wasn’t it known?”
Some attendees highlighted efforts Yale has made to confront the history that it has contributed to and been influenced by. These events include last week’s Symposium on the Legacy of Robert Farris Thompson by Yale’s Department of the History of Art and programs like the Pennington Fellowship, which aim to highlight the legacy and contributions of Black leaders to Yale.
At the same time, several attendees also told the News they felt the exhibit provided new information about the University’s role in New Haven history.
“It’s a really eye-opening exhibit because you don’t particularly see the narrative about how Yale individuals interact with New Haven, particularly in the context of African American history,” said Anh Nguyen ’26.
Nguyen said this history is not well-known or discussed often around campus.
Even with Yale’s efforts to move towards a better future, Morand and Cropper emphasized the importance of looking back on the University’s history and understanding how to learn from it.
“We are an educational institution. And the reality is that predecessors of ours, in this institution, and others in the leadership of New Haven acted to thwart education, and we need to reckon with that,” Morand said.
David Daggett, the former mayor of New Haven and founder of the Yale Law School, led the opposition to the proposed HBCU. His opposition would go on to be cited to defend the infamous Dred Scott v. Sandford ruling, which held that the Constitution did not extend American citizenship to people of black African descent.
Sheryl Carter Negash ’82 said that Yale’s power in New Haven means the University has a responsibility to the city around it.
“I’m thinking about what’s owed. The New Haven that I came to in 1978 is not the same as the New Haven I know now,” Negash said. “I’m thinking about the continuation of oppression that Yale contributed to and, now, what’s needed.”
In light of recent political attempts in Florida to change history curricula, Vera Wells ’71 said that the documents displayed as part of the exhibit are a testament to the history of Black people’s fighting to access education across the country.
The event at the Beinecke not only allowed visitors to reflect on Yale and New Haven’s history but on their personal connections to this history.
Wells, who was a part of the first class of women admitted to Yale and one of the first Black women to graduate from Yale, said that she had never thought about applying to Yale.
“I just happened to be living in New Haven with my husband, and I applied thinking I wasn’t going to get in,” Wells told the News. “If it hadn’t been for my coming, then what would’ve my life been like?”
Later this week, on Sept. 14, Yale will host a ceremony to posthumously award Reverend James W.C. Pennington and Reverend Alexander Crummell with honorary degrees.
Correction, Sept. 14: A previous version of this article included a misspelling of Cropper’s name. The article has been edited to reflect this.