Slavery complicates Yale's history
James Campbell, chair of the Brown University Committee on Slavery and Justice said Brown felt it was important to confront candidly the issue of its involvement with slavery. Brown University President Ruth Simmons, who appointed the committee, is the first African-American to lead an Ivy League institution. Campbell said the conversations that students have had on this issue have been far richer than the committee could have hoped.
"We used this as an occasion to not only to teach our students about the history of the institution but also to model for them how it was possible to confront very awkward, controversial questions in reasoned, civil and academically rigorous ways," he said.
In its report, the Brown committee recommended that the university formally acknowledge the participation of many of its founders and benefactors in the institution of slavery, create a slave trade memorial, write a new history book that includes references to slavery and incorporate a discussion of the university's relationship to slavery in freshman orientation.
Several students said they thought if Yale looked into its historical relationship with slavery, it would show the evolution of the University from a more conservative to a more liberal institution. They said if Yale does not come forth and investigate its past, students will have no other means of finding out exactly what happened.
"I think it is the responsibility of the University to open this discourse and make this information available to students," Danielle Lespinasse '07 said.
Yale's eight-year-old Gilder Lehrman Center, which is part of the MacMillan Center for International Studies, focuses most of its research on the international development of slavery in the modern world rather than on American slavery. Assistant Director Dana Schaffer said while the center has studied American slavery, its research projects are often dependent on its fellows' interests, which have spanned nations and time periods.
Aside from the actions of the center, Associate Director Robert Forbes said that there has not been a University-wide commitment to the issue comparable to the Brown initiative.
"Yale as an institution could have applied its extraordinary resources to accomplish more and take a greater leadership role in mobilizing more resources than were available through the GLC," Forbes said. "It could have made this a bigger story than it ultimately did."
Chris Rabb '92, co-founder of the Yale Black Alumni Network, said the administration has not taken leadership in substantively addressing this issue, since Yale has benefited from the money generated from the slave trade, played a historic role in the aftermath of the Amistad revolt and is located in New Haven, a city with a large impoverished black community.
"I think the silence is deafening as a black alum of a predominantly white institution," he said. "It heightens my long-standing suspicion of the extent to which the University is sensitive to its various constituencies."
The Law School's 2002 conference was organized in response to a 2001 report written by three Yale doctoral students. The report, entitled "Yale, Slavery, and Abolition," alleged that nine of Yale's 12 residential colleges are named after slave owners or prominent defenders of slavery. While the academic merits of the report were disputed - some critics said the report, which was funded by GESO and Locals 34 and 35, lacked historical context and was meant simply to embarrass Yale - the controversy it generated was enough to draw a response from the University.
But Owen Williams LAW '07, who attended the conference, said despite the fact that one of the workshops was entitled "The Edwards Tradition and Post-Revolutionary Yale," the only mention of Yale's relationship to slavery came during one of the workshop's question and answer sessions.
"That conference was a way of appearing to respond to the Yale and slavery report, without in fact responding," Williams said.
While administrators intended the conference to be the beginning of Yale's response to its historical involvement with slavery, Forbes said, he thinks it was the end of it.
But given that the University's long history reaches back to a period where slavery was prevalent in society, Yale President Richard Levin said, the University's historical ties to slavery are inevitable.
"American history is full of embarrassments," Levin said. "We know today that slavery was very widespread in the North as well as the South, at least prior to the Revolutionary War. There are a number of early leaders of this institution who were slave owners. It's simply a fact of history."
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor Gerald Horne, who wrote the foreword to the 2001 graduate student report, said the fact that many institutions have historical ties to slavery does not excuse Yale from investigating the depth of its relationship to slavery.
"This country has a bloodstained history and I don't think it's sufficient to say that everybody is doing it, so nobody has to do anything," Horne said.
While Forbes said he believes Yale could have done more after the 2001 graduate student report was released to build discussion on the issue, he said he understands the cautious stance the University took.
"I'm also a realist in recognizing that this university is a multibillion dollar corporation that operates with extreme caution and conservatism," Forbes said. "It's a challenging environment to negotiate the abstract values of academic inquiry."
The 2001 report also caused controversy among students. After the release of the report, which alleged that Timothy Dwight trained more pro-slavery clergymen than any other educator in the nation during his tenure as Yale president, Dwight Hall coordinators considered changing the name of their organization. Although Dwight Hall retained its name in the end, students installed a plaque that acknowledged Dwight's pro-slavery practices while maintaining the organization's mission of social justice.
"With this plaque, Dwight Hall at Yale renounces the pro-slavery thought and actions of Timothy Dwight, while reaffirming our predecessors' work on behalf of justice and equality," reads the plaque, which is displayed inside Dwight Hall. "We maintain the name Dwight Hall to ensure the ideological continuity of this work in the minds of Yale students and New Haven residents, who associate Dwight Hall with the ideals of public service and social justice."
Director of the Gilder Lehrman Center David Blight said that having the University create an unbiased committee of people from different backgrounds, disciplines and fields to address Yale's connection to slavery, antislavery and race relations could "do useful good for the campus." But he said unlike the 2001 graduate student report, the committee and its research should be conducted in a broad and open process.
"You don't want to do things just to expose a piece of the past, just try to embarrass people," Blight said. "You want to do it for good, sound educational reasons."
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