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NY Times, Jan. 24 2017
Columbia Unearths Its Ties to Slavery
By JENNIFER SCHUESSLER
In 1755 a New York City newspaper carried an account of the swearing-in
of the governors of the newly founded King’s College, which later grew
into Columbia University. At the bottom of the page ran an advertisement
for a rather different occasion: the sale of “TWO likely Negro Boys, and
The ad would have raised few eyebrows at King’s, where many of the
college’s early presidents, trustees, donors and students owned slaves.
But now it’s the opening example in a new report detailing Columbia’s
historical ties to slavery.
The report, to be released by the university on Tuesday as part of a new
website, offers no dramatic revelations akin to that of the sale of 272
slaves in 1838 that helped keep Georgetown University afloat and that
has raised a contentious debate about reparations today. But it
illuminates the many ways that the institution of human bondage seeped
into the financial, intellectual and social life of the university, and
of the North as a whole.
“People still associate slavery with the South, but it was also a
Northern phenomenon,” Eric Foner, the Columbia historian who wrote the
report, said in an interview. “This is a very, very neglected piece of
our own institution’s history, and of New York City’s history, that
deserves to be better known.”
A 1755 advertisement in The New-York Gazette, or The Weekly Post-Boy,
offering three slaves for sale. Credit via Columbia University
“Every institution should know its history, the bad and the good,” he
said. “It’s hard to grasp just how profoundly our contemporary society
is still affected by what has happened over the past two or three
Awareness of the ties between slavery and Northern universities has
waxed and waned over time. The issue first came to the fore in 2001,
when scholars associated with a unionization campaign at Yale issued a
report challenging what they considered the university’s one-sided
celebration of its abolitionist past.
In 2002 Ruth Simmons, the president of Brown, drew headlines with her
call for an investigation of that university’s connections at a moment
when a major reparations lawsuit against banks and insurance companies
was making its way (ultimately unsuccessfully) through federal courts.
The political charge surrounding the issue then receded, only to come
roaring back in recent years, thanks to student activism and the broader
Black Lives Matter movement. Harvard, which installed a plaque last
spring honoring four enslaved people who worked on campus in the 1700s,
plans to hold a conference on universities and slavery in March.
Princeton has commissioned seven plays based on its research into its
ties with slavery, which will be released in the fall.
“This has become almost a national movement,” said Sven Beckert, a
historian at Harvard who led an undergraduate research seminar on
Harvard and slavery in 2007. “There is now more of a realization that
these issues are in some ways still with us, and that to move forward we
need to come to terms with our past.”
The Columbia report had its origins in 2013, when Mr. Bollinger read
about Craig Steven Wilder’s book “Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery and the
Troubled History of America’s Universities.”
He and Mr. Foner invited Mr. Wilder to speak on campus and began
discussing the possibility of an undergraduate research seminar to
investigate Columbia’s ties further. The report draws on research from
that seminar, taught by Mr. Foner in 2015 and, last year, by Thai Jones,
a curator in Columbia’s rare-book-and-manuscript library.
While the story the report tells is complex, the bottom line is blunt.
“From the outset,” it declares, “slavery was intertwined with the life
of the college.”
The university, while it does not itself appear to have owned slaves,
both benefited from slavery-related fortunes and actively helped
A 1779 audit by Augustus Van Horne, the college’s treasurer (and a slave
owner), showed that the endowment often lent money to alumni and other
prominent New Yorkers at below-market rates, thus “helping subsidize the
mercantile and other business activities of men who profited from slavery.”
New York passed a gradual-abolition law in 1799, but some people
connected with King’s, the report notes, continued to own slaves.
Benjamin Moore, its president, owned two in 1810, according to the census.
While information on individual slaves was difficult to find, the
website includes a brief section on one named Joe, who came to Kings in
1773 with John Parke Custis, a stepson of George Washington’s. “We
didn’t want this just to be about white owners,” Mr. Foner said.
The report also discusses Columbians who were involved in antislavery
activities, if generally of the more moderate sort. A section on
Alexander Hamilton, for example, notes that he joined the New York
Manumission Society in 1785 and rejected notions of black inferiority
but said nothing about slavery at the Constitutional Convention.
In contrast to Columbia’s more recent reputation as a seat of
progressive activism, records of student debating societies from the
early 1800s show only ”mild hostility to slavery, coupled with
opposition to general emancipation,” the report says.
The more than 400 notable Columbians listed in a database on the website
includes a few full-fledged abolitionists, like John Jay II. But there
were many more, like William A. Duer, the college’s president in the
1830s (and a slave owner as late as 1814), who supported the
colonization movement, which held that blacks should be freed and then
sent back to Africa.
“One thing that really surprised me was how few Columbians were actually
involved in fighting against slavery,” said Mr. Foner, whose most recent
book is about the Underground Railroad in New York.
The report ends at the Civil War, when most Columbians, the report says,
“rallied to the Union cause.” The research seminar will continue to be
held annually, filling in the gaps and pushing the story into the 20th
Mr. Foner said he hoped the project would look at the impact, not always
positive, of Columbia professors’ scholarship on race as well as why the
university was slower than comparable institutions to enroll
“You don’t get the first black undergraduate until 1908,” Mr. Foner
said. “I would really like to know more about why.”
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