Eric Foner describes how profits from the slave trade helped fund the start of Columbia University

Historians in the News
tags: slavery, Columbia University, reparations

The revelation last year that Georgetown University had, in 1838, sold 272 slaves owned by the school in order to pay off debts reignited a conversation about how America and its old, elite institutions of higher education have continually failed to reckon with their ties to slavery.

In recent years, the calls for a more honest discussion about the legacy of slavery and the honoring of known slaveholders and traders at some of the nation’s most revered schools have intensified. But in order to even begin to talk about this linkage—and how to cope with it—schools must delve into their histories and provide a greater level of transparency about their once-close relationships with human bondage. A new research project at Columbia University is attempting to do just that. They released a preliminary report this week.

I spoke with Eric Foner, the professor at Columbia who is heading the project, to learn more about what it is and what they hope to achieve. The interview below has been lightly edited for clarity.

Gillian B. White: What spurred your group to put together this report on Columbia’s relationship with slavery at this moment?

Eric Foner: This has been going on at many universities lately. The real catalyst was the appearance of this book by Craig Wilder, Ebony and Ivy, which is about institutions of higher learning and their relationship with slavery.

[Columbia University] President [Lee] Bollinger asked if we were doing anything similar and I said, “No, but I’ve thought about it.” We knew Yale, Harvard, and Brown had done something—Princeton is doing something. It seemed like the time had come....

White: Because the North is rarely talked about when it comes to the brutality of slavery, it’s hard for some people to envision the role slavery played in New York. Can you talk to me about how economically dependent New York was on slavery?

Foner: In the colonial era slavery was a very important presence in the city and state. It wasn’t a plantation economy, but in 1750 I think about one-seventh of the population of the city were slaves. That’s not insignificant. More to the point, the elite, the one percent of this era— the people who founded King’s College and funded it—were leading merchants and if you were a leading merchant your money was coming from the West Indian slave trade, and the African slave trade.

New York was connected to the West Indies: food, trade, and slavery. We were very much integrated into a British Empire that was centered there.

White: So this is where the connection between Columbia’s early financing and slavery comes in?

Foner: There was an interlocking elite, big merchants, lawyers and so on. The Livingstons, the Delanceys, the Watts. All of them had some connection to slavery.

These well-to-do families had slaves working in their households. You’re not talking about 100 slaves, or plantations, you’re talking about a few. But most of the early presidents of the school owned slaves, most of the elite students had grown up with slaves. It was a very visible presence in the city and upstate....

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