In DeVane Lectures, historian to examine the legacy of slavery and the Civil War

In a semester-long lecture series open to the public, Yale’s David W. Blight will explore the history of slavery and its continued effects.
David W. Blight

David W. Blight

David W. Blight, one of the country’s foremost authorities on slavery and the Civil War, will lead a course exploring the intertwined and lasting legacies of the two as part of an annual Yale lecture series that is open to the public at no charge.

The 2024 DeVane Lectures course, “Can it Happen Here Again? Yale, Slavery, the Civil War and their Legacies,” is based in part on the Yale and Slavery Research Project, a comprehensive examination of Yale’s historical connections to slavery. Blight led the project, which included faculty, staff, students, and New Haven community members, and is the primary author of “Yale and Slavery: A History” (Yale University Press), a scholarly, peer-reviewed book that presents the project’s research in full. (Key findings and the full book are available online for free.)

Registration for the course, which will be offered in the fall, opens April 15.

I hope people will take away a deep historical understanding of Yale’s own experience with this problem, and how slavery helped shape this university’s history and many others,” said Blight, Sterling Professor of History and African American Studies in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS). “And that they gain an understanding of how what is arguably the most divisive issue we’ve ever had continues to shape us as a country. We’re close to that kind of divisiveness today.”

Blight is also director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale. He has authored numerous books related to slavery and the Civil War, including “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom” (Simon & Schuster), the 2018 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of the once-enslaved 19th-century orator who became a leader in the abolitionist movement.

Members of the Yale and New Haven communities are invited to attend the lecture series, which will be in-person only, for free. Yale undergraduates may enroll in the course for credit.

The DeVane Lectures series, established in 1969, is named for William Clyde DeVane, dean of Yale College from 1939 to 1963. Last year’s course, “China in Six Keys,” was taught by Jing Tsu, the Jonathan D. Spence Professor of Comparative Literature and East Asian Languages and Literatures and chair of comparative literature in FAS.

Blight’s DeVane course will be divided into three parts. The first will focus on the key elements of the Yale and slavery study, such as the early Yale leaders who owned enslaved people, the labor of enslaved people in constructing Connecticut Hall, and Yale alumni participation in quashing an effort to build the country’s first Black college in New Haven in 1831. It will incorporate documentation housed in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and Sterling Memorial Library, as well as readings from “Yale and Slavery: A History.”

That concludes in 1915 with the dedication of Yale’s sculpted Civil War Memorial on the ground floor of Woolsey Hall. The memorial honors the Yale graduates who died in the war in both the Union and Confederate forces, and makes no mention of slavery, the reason the war was fought.

It is the most significant monument to the Confederate ‘Lost Cause’ ideology on northern soil,” Blight said. “How did that happen?”

That question will set the stage for the second part of the course, which will cover the causes of disunion, the fighting of the Civil War, emancipation efforts (which eventually led to passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery), and the Reconstruction era that followed.

The final third of the course will take up the ways in which the legacies of that era are still with us today, and how they continue to threaten a multi-ethnic democracy. These concluding lectures will address the course’s provocative title, a twist on that of the 1935 Sinclair Lewis novel, “It Can’t Happen Here.”  The novel, about the election and totalitarian rule of a fascist president in the U.S., was frequently cited in recent years for its perceived parallels to Donald Trump’s election and the contemporary political landscape.

If we’re going to take up a subject with this kind of aftermath, why not understand how it still shapes us?” Blight said. “We’re reliving the issues of Reconstruction almost every day in this country, and not just because of Trumpism. It’s because they’re so unfinished.”

Members of the public must register for the DeVane Lectures on the course website. Registration begins on April 15. The lectures are held in person only. Beginning on August 29, lectures will take place Tuesdays and Thursdays, 11:35 a.m.-12:25 p.m. in the O.C. Marsh Lecture Hall in the Yale Science Building, located at 260 Whitney Ave.

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