Yale publicly confronts historical involvement in slavery

During a three-day conference, Yale researchers shared and grappled with initial discoveries about the university’s entanglements with slavery.
Composite of historical documents.

In a publicly accessible academic conference held Oct. 28 to Oct. 30, Yale researchers and other experts shared and grappled with initial discoveries about the university’s entanglements with slavery, part of a rigorous, ongoing effort by Yale to reckon with its role in a tragic and painful fact of United States history.

Also, President Peter Salovey outlined initial actions Yale will take in response to what it has learned about its past and its responsibilities in the present. These will include the creation of permanent memorialization of the enslaved and indigenous people who played vital roles in the community but whose stories have been forgotten; a meaningful increase in the university’s direct financial support for its home city of New Haven; and collaborations with the nation’s Historically Black and Tribal Colleges and Universities.

Today, we are acknowledging that slavery and the slave trade are part of Yale’s history — our history,” Salovey said in a speech early in the conference, “Yale & Slavery in Historical Perspective.” “We do this because moving forward requires an honest reckoning with our past. And because the purpose of our university — to create, preserve, and disseminate knowledge — calls us to do so.”

The online conference represented a milestone in the ongoing work of the Yale and Slavery Working Group (YSWG), which Salovey convened in October 2020 to investigate Yale’s historic roles in and associations with slavery, the slave trade, and abolition. Researchers involved in the project, led by Sterling Professor of History and Pulitzer Prize-winner David Blight, are continuing their investigations, and expect to publish a book about their findings next year.

The conference was 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.

During the conference, researchers shared — in some cases for the first time, in other cases in new and greater detail — that:

  • Enslaved Africans’ labor was used in the mid-18th-century construction of Connecticut Hall, an iconic building in the heart of Old Campus;
  • prominent members of the Yale community joined with fellow New Haven leaders to stop a proposal to build a college for Black students in New Haven in 1831;
  • the “reconciliationist” approach to Yale’s Civil War memorial in the rotunda of Memorial Hall — which inscribes Confederate names in equivalence to those who fought for the United States — occurred amid a university campaign to recruit students and donors from the U.S. South in the late 19th and early 20th centuries;
  • and Yale faculty members played leading roles in the American Eugenics movement in the 1920s and 1930s, including three well-known scholars who served on the board of directors of the American Eugenics Society.

While this research delves deep into Yale’s past, sifting through its many “histories” since its colonial-era founding, Blight said, the work is also linked to the present we are living — America’s current reckoning with its history of racism and inequity.

The past and present are always linked,” he said. “… History never stops. Cause and effect never take a day off. Although it’s an ancient utopian dream to live above history, nobody can.”

Reckoning with the past

Over the conference’s three days, experts from Yale and across the nation joined in panel discussions about a range of difficult topics about slavery and the university, including how the creation of scientific knowledge and academic curricula contributed to ideas of racial differences, and how other universities have reckoned with the realities of their own pasts.

Some discussions centered on Yale, such as an exploration of the social and economic legacies of the university’s early history, the ubiquity of slavery in Connecticut and New England in the 17th and 18th centuries, the place of Southern slaveholders at Yale during its first two centuries, and the role of race in medical and scientific work at Yale. Other discussions centered on the broader society, such as how scholars in slavery studies at other universities are grappling with similar questions. (See the full agenda and watch recordings of conference events.)

Participants included Yale scholars and researchers who have been investigating the university’s involvements in slavery and its aftermath, as well as visiting scholars, some with close Yale ties.

The conference opened Thursday with a keynote discussion, moderated by Blight, featuring Elizabeth Alexander ’84, a former Yale faculty member who is now president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; and former dean of Yale College Jonathan Holloway Ph.D. ’95, now president of Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. Both are leading national voices in the current effort to confront racism in America and improve society for all.

Yale’s systematic examination of its past, Alexander said, is long overdue and is essential. She recognized the scholars, university leadership, and others who have agitated from within and outside of Yale — faculty and students among them — for helping bring the community to this moment.

Institutions cannot be dishonest about their past,” she said. “And we just can’t fear it and we can’t run from it. But we must take the full consequence of what it means to say, it’s not just one little statue where you can go and feel bad that there was slavery. That would be worse than not good. I promise that that would backfire.”

Holloway said some institutions shy away from confronting the complexities of the past because they fear it will make them look bad. He takes a different view: He believes that recognizing those whose contributions have been neglected — whether it’s the enslaved individuals who helped build Connecticut Hall or the young enslaved boy featured in an infamous painting of university benefactor Elihu Yale — honors their resilience, persistence, creativity, and skills.

And it enables a community to understand itself in a different way.

I admire institutions that are unafraid of their past because that speaks to a kind of maturity that we can recognize,” he said. “There are some difficult things about who we are, but we are going to talk about them, we are going to wrestle with them, because that is the only way we are going to get better.”

What we’ve learned

On Friday and Saturday, researchers presented highlights of what the project team has learned so far about Yale’s relationship with slavery, the slave trade, and the abolition movement, discussed the implications of it, and explored what might constitute a meaningful 21st-century acknowledgement.

Teanu Reid, a Yale Ph.D. candidate in African American studies and history, shared the research team’s finding that the 1750-1752 construction of Connecticut Hall, on Old Campus, included the labor of five enslaved people. On Friday, she said it was but one example of Yale’s relationship with slavery, including ties with global trade and an economy built on slavery.

In the early 18th century, she said, the colonial assembly of Connecticut on multiple occasions directed tax revenues raised through the sale of rum — which was produced from sugarcane harvested in the Caribbean through the labor of enslaved Africans — to fund the fledgling college, including construction of early buildings such as the rector’s house in New Haven.

And in those early days, there were many slaveowners connected to the school, including at least half the founding trustees and many subsequent donors, trustees, and students.

Students and staff at Yale would not have been conflicted about the use of money connected to slave labor or even the presence of enslaved people in Connecticut,” Reid said.

One of those students was among Yale’s most celebrated early graduates. Jonathan Edwards, the renowned 18th-century revival preacher, theologian, and philosopher, believed that the Bible endorsed slavery, said Ken Minkema, director of the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale. “He and his wife Sarah Pierpont of New Haven purchased enslaved persons throughout their lives,” Minkema said.

Edwards delivered his most famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” in 1741 at the height of the Great Awakening religious revival, and a few weeks later drafted a statement on slavery and the slave trade in which he defended the institution of slavery but cast as hypocrites those who criticized slavery while profiting from it, Minkema said. In the same statement, he denounced the slave trade, despite having purchased human beings through it, “as unlawful disenfranchisement and an obstacle to spreading the Gospel,” Minkema said.

On Friday, Yale University archivist Michael Lotstein discussed how past archival practices led to gaps in the historical record, or “archival silences,” through the omission of marginalized peoples or events in which they figured. For instance, until now, Yale’s records lacked any mention of the role of enslaved peoples in the construction of Connecticut Hall. He also suggested ways that modern archival descriptive practices could help provide a more complete picture of history.

Later, Bennet Parten, a Ph.D. candidate in history at Yale, described how a proposal by white abolitionist allies and free Black leaders to create a “College for Colored Youth” in New Haven was fiercely fought by powerful Yale and city men.

Endorsed by the First Annual Convention of the People of Colour at their meeting in Philadelphia in June 1831, the proposed college met overwhelming resistance from the Yale and New Haven communities, including prominent Yale faculty and alumni. Opponents argued that a new Black college would harm the city’s existing institutions — including Yale and a school for women.

In a town meeting on Sept. 10, 1831, participants voted 700 to 4 against the college proposal. Resolutions passed at the time said in part that the “establishment of a College in the same place to educate the colored population is incompatible with the prosperity, if not the existence, of the present institutions of learning, and will be destructive of the best interests of the city.”

What they were really suggesting,” Parten observed, “was that bringing African Americans to New Haven would create more chances for amalgamation, of race-mixing, and this was something they couldn’t abide by.” What’s more, he said, there were concerns that southern planters who sent their sons to Yale would take offense and withdraw them, and that establishing a school for Black men might signal the approach of emancipation, inciting insurrection elsewhere.

Racist attitudes at Yale did not vanish with the abolition of slavery decades later. Indeed, many people on campus celebrated Yale’s connections to the U.S. South and the Confederacy well into the 20th century, entrenching white supremacy on campus while overlooking slavery, said Steven Rome ’20, a YSWG research assistant who is now a teacher at New Haven’s Cold Spring School.

During his presentation, Rome described how John C. Calhoun 1804 B.A., 1822 LL.D., a former U.S. vice president and longtime leader in the Senate, was revered as a Yale icon long before a residential college was named in his honor, in part through a scholarship awarded to southern students in his name. The university’s Civil War memorial, dedicated in 1915, was the first at a northern university to recognize Confederate veterans equivalently in honor to those who fought for the Union. The memorial aimed to honor the fact that soldiers on both sides fought for what they believed in, Rome noted, but is silent about the role of slavery as cause of the war.

(In 2017, Calhoun College was renamed after Grace Murray Hopper ’30 M.A., ’34 Ph.D., a trailblazing computer scientist, brilliant mathematician and teacher, and dedicated public servant.)

The creation of the Civil War memorial, Rome added, coincided both with a concerted effort to recruit more students from the U.S. South as Yale aimed to become a more “national” university and a time when the “Lost Cause” mythology took root in the nation, obscuring the role of slavery and white supremacy in the history of the war and the nation.

Around the same time, some members of the Yale faculty were leaders in the American Eugenics movement, Daniel HoSang, an associate professor of ethnicity, race, and migration and of American studies, said Saturday. Many of the faculty — representing the fields of economics, medicine, geography, anthropology, life sciences, forestry, literature, and many others — were central to Yale’s transformation into a modern research university. Among them, he said, were three prominent Yale faculty members who served on the board of directors of the American Eugenics Society, which was based in New Haven for much of this time.

He also discussed how the special collections community at the Yale Library is working to correct these omissions and silences through modern archival descriptive practices.

A number of conference speakers also noted the importance of further research into the dispossession of indigenous communities in colonial Connecticut and the relationship of early Yale with that history.

The path forward

During a Saturday afternoon panel, a group of scholars discussed the most important takeaways from the conference and steps Yale and similar institutions can and should take to address the ugly side of their histories and the contradictions they reveal.

James Forman, Jr., the J. Skelly Wright Professor of Law at Yale Law School, revisited the university’s role in thwarting a college for Black students in New Haven in the early 1830s, lamenting that rather than using its power and resources to promote Black education, Yale stood in its way.

We can’t do anything right now, today, about choices and decisions that were made in 1831,” he said. “But we can, should, and must absolutely do something about decisions that are made in 2021. So, I want to ask us to focus ourselves now and in the months and years to come on the question of slavery and its afterlives, and to ask and demand that Yale use all of its creative and intellectual and financial resources to respond, to repair, to compensate, to atone, for the history that is being uncovered.”

A crucial question facing the Yale community is how to translate new revelations about its past — which are making the invisible visible — into the university’s teaching and research, said Willie Jennings, associate professor of systematic theology and Africana studies at Yale Divinity School. At a time when the United States is grappling with questions over “remembering and teaching,” he said, Yale can play a crucial role in connecting the two.

And the question of slavery, he said, should play a critical part in intellectual work across campus.

Whether one is in history or calculus, whether one is in religion or chemistry, thinking seriously about the ongoing afterlife of slavery is crucial to all our intellectual work,” he said. “What I think is so important for this moment, especially here at Yale, is for us to see the expansion of the moral.”

Salovey said the findings of the Yale and Slavery Working Group “are as simple as they are sobering.” In the weeks and months ahead, he said, the university will further detail its initial actions “to reconcile what we know of Yale’s past with our responsibilities in the present.”

For instance, he will ask Yale’s Committee on Art in Public Spaces to engage the community in developing permanent memorialization for enslaved people who have been silenced by history. “By memorializing the Africans and Indigenous people who were enslaved,” he said, “we ensure that all those who work, live, and visit our campus will know the truth about our past.”

He also vowed to strengthen the university’s relationships with Historically Black and Tribal Colleges and Universities to reduce the cost of a college education and to create pathways for students to move among Yale and these institutions to enhance their studies. Achieving this, he said, will require collaborations that address current obstacles and barriers.

Salovey also announced that Yale will increase its direct financial support to the city of New Haven. The president, along with New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker, will announce specifics in the coming weeks. (Yale makes the largest voluntary annual payment to its host city of any private university in the country.)

The ‘afterlife’ of slavery

Early in the conference, Elizabeth Alexander ’84, the poet, former Yale faculty member, and president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, said she was pleased that the university is reckoning with its past, emphasizing that it is long overdue.

She urged the Yale community to take a holistic look at the legacies of slavery.

What is so important in thinking about slavery is thinking also about this idea, to use Saidiya Hartman’s term, the ‘afterlife’ of slavery,” Alexander said.

Quoting Hartman ’92 Ph.D., she continued:

If slavery persists as an issue in the political life of Black Americans, it is not because of an antiquarian obsession with bygone days or the burden of a too-long memory, but because Black lives are still imperiled and devalued by a racial calculus and a political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago.”

And, continuing in her own words, Alexander said: “This is the afterlife of slavery: skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment…

In that spirit, it is important to say, it’s wonderful that it’s now and it’s too late that it’s now. We’ve been having these conversations a long time.”

Mike Cummings contributed to this report.

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Karen N. Peart: karen.peart@yale.edu, 203-980-2222