Conference to explore Yale’s history with slavery

“Yale & Slavery in Historical Perspective” brings together experts to discuss the university’s historic relationship with slavery and its legacy.
An account of the charges for building the new college, Connecticut Hall, through September 8, 1752.

An account of the charges for building the new college, Connecticut Hall, through September 8, 1752.

For the past year, Yale scholars, librarians, New Haven community members, and student researchers have been digging through Yale’s own past for a deeper understanding of the university’s historical relationship with slavery and its legacy.

During a three-day academic conference starting Oct. 28, experts from across Yale and the nation will discuss what they’ve learned so far, including new insights into the construction of Connecticut Hall, an iconic Old Campus structure built in part by enslaved Africans, and the “reconciliationist” approach to Yale’s Civil War memorial in Woolsey Hall.

Open to the public, the online conference, “Yale & Slavery in Historical Perspective,” is the latest in a series of events led by the Yale and Slavery Working Group (YSWG), which was convened by Yale President Peter Salovey in October 2020, to investigate Yale’s historic entanglements and associations with slavery, the slave trade, and abolition. Salovey will deliver opening remarks.

To register for the conference, which will be conducted over Zoom, or to see a full schedule of events, visit the conference website. A YouTube playlist of video presentations associated with the Yale & Slavery Research Project, including synopses of some of the research to date and student perspectives, is also available.

Salovey has described the “Yale & Slavery” project — part of an ongoing national discussion about racism and discrimination — as an urgent reckoning with the university’s history, and an important opportunity to analyze, understand, and publicly communicate it.

Like many of America’s oldest institutions, Yale has seldom, if ever, recognized the labor, the experiences, and the contributions of enslaved people and their descendants to our university’s history or our present,” Salovey said. “For generations, we have looked away from what is in plain sight. But now we are acknowledging that slavery, the slave trade, and abolition are part of Yale’s history.

It is important we shine a light into every concealed corner of our past, because moving forward requires an honest reckoning with our history, and because the purpose of our university is to create, preserve, and disseminate knowledge. The fundamental work we all share applies as much to Yale’s past as anyone’s.”

The conference is hosted by the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, part of the MacMillan Center at Yale. Founded in 1998, the Gilder Lehrman Center is the first such center in the world to study such international historical questions.

Topics during the conference will include the university’s 18th-century theological roots; the economics of slavery-created wealth; the place of Southern slaveholders at Yale during its first two centuries; medical and scientific legacies of race at Yale; forces of abolition at the university; the history of labor in building the campus; and why the inclusion of Confederate veterans was central to the purpose of the university’s Civil War memorial when it was created in 1915.

Following Salovey’s introduction Thursday, the discussions will begin with a keynote conversation on the topic “Universities, Slavery, and Memory” featuring David W. Blight, chair of the YSWG, Sterling Professor of History, and director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at the MacMillan Center at Yale; Elizabeth Alexander ’84, president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and a former Yale faculty member; and former dean of Yale College Jonathan Holloway Ph.D. ’95, now president of Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. Both Alexander and Holloway, in their writing and leadership, have been crucial voices on these issues.

Other panels will include conversations about slavery and the university; slavery and the economic landscape of colonial and 19th-century Connecticut; and slavery, religion, and Yale. View the full calendar.

During a discussion on “Finding Slavery in the Archives,” research team leaders will present and discuss findings emerging from YSWG’s extensive archival work, focusing on Yale’s involvement with the institution of slavery, its abolition in the U.S., and how this history is commemorated. Crystal Feimster, associate professor of African American studies, history, and American studies at Yale, and a member of YSWG, will moderate the discussion.

Presentations will include:

•  “Yale, Rum, and Slavery” by Teanu Reid, a doctoral candidate in African American studies and history at Yale and a research assistant for YSWG, who will discuss archival research findings documenting slave labor in the building of Connecticut Hall and 18th-century donations to the college by slaveholders and by members of the Connecticut assembly with ties to sugar-producing plantations in the West Indies.

• YSWG research assistant Steven Rome ’20, now a teacher at New Haven’s Cold Spring School, will share his findings about the design of Yale’s Civil War memorial, dedicated in 1915, which honored both Yale Union and Confederate soldiers. He will discuss archival materials related to the memorial — as well as opposing views about the design from that period that were not included the archives.

• Ph.D. candidate in history Bennet Parten will speak on “Reading the Archive Around the 1831 Negro College,” focusing on an unsuccessful attempt to build a college for Black men in New Haven in 1831.

• Yale University archivist Michael Lotstein will address “Symbolic Annihilation: Issues in Modern Archival Cataloguing,” exploring how modern archival descriptive practices aim to help uncover the history of under-documented or marginalized peoples within Yale’s archives.

During a luncheon breakout session on Friday, Courtney Martin, director of the Yale Center for British Art, and Edward Town, the center’s head of collections information and access, will discuss a circa-1719 painting owned by the center that depicts a child of African descent pouring wine for Elihu Yale, an early and prominent university benefactor. Martin and Town will share what is known about the enslaved child and about Elihu Yale’s connection to slavery.

On Saturday, the conference resumes with expert discussions about race, art, and iconography at Yale, and about the ways in which ideologies of racial differences and accompanying social hierarchies were constructed in the fields of medicine and science at the university.

The conference concludes with a roundtable discussion moderated by Blight on “Race, Slavery, and Yale’s Construction of Its Memory.” A panel of scholars will address the way universities and other institutions face their past or present engagements with racial ideologies and practices, with a focus on how Yale has forged its own historical memory over time.

Presenters will also share ideas for how Yale and other universities can move forward.

The Yale & Slavery Working Group aims to release a full report of research findings and recommendations by the middle of next year.

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