After 90 Years, Columbia Takes Slave Owner’s Name Off a DormHistorians in the News
tags: slavery, Columbia University, public history, colleges and universities
Little is known about the 18th-century New Yorker described in an advertisement seeking the return of a runaway slave in 1776 beyond his given name (James), what he looked like (tall and thin, with bloodshot eyes) and that he was talkative.
James’s owner, Dr. Samuel Bard, is less obscure. He was a major figure in New York medical circles at the time, President George Washington’s doctor and a founder of Columbia University’s medical school. He also delivered Alexander Hamilton’s son Philip.
When Columbia opened a dormitory for medical students in Upper Manhattan in 1931, Dr. Bard’s name went on it as a tribute to his contributions to the university.
Now — nearly 90 years later, amid a summer of protests against racial injustice and as elite universities and other institutions continue to confront their ties to slavery — his name is about to come off.
On Friday, Lee C. Bollinger, the university’s president, said in a letter to students and faculty members that the dorm, Bard Hall, would be renamed this fall. A new name has not yet been chosen, and Mr. Bollinger’s letter did not offer details about the process for picking one.
“Of course, we cannot, indeed should not, erase Samuel Bard’s contributions to the medical school,” Mr. Bollinger wrote. “But we must not recall this history without also recognizing the reason for our decision to rename Bard Hall.”
The events that led to the announcement on Friday began in 2015, when Columbia students and faculty members, at Mr. Bollinger’s direction, began a research project delving into the university’s connections to slavery and how slave-trade profits had helped fund the school.
Eric Foner, a professor emeritus of history at Columbia who led the research project into the university’s links to slavery, said the ties ran much deeper than the name of Bard Hall, though he said the decision to rename the building was a “wise move.”
“The money from slavery goes way back in Columbia’s history,” he said, adding that the university itself did not own slaves.
Dr. Bard’s name figured prominently in the project, Professor Foner said, because of his contributions to the university and because he owned eight slaves, including James, the subject of the runaway-slave ad (Dr. Bard offered a $10 reward for his return).
“Samuel Bard was a pretty significant slave owner by New York standards,” Professor Foner said.
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