Rutgers Gets Mixed Results in Examining Connections to Slavery

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tags: Rutgers, public history, colleges and universities

Rutgers University officials were deep into preparations for a year-long celebration of the institution's 250th anniversary in 2016, when students recognized a major part of the story behind its founding was missing.

"It did not include an acknowledgement of the history of slavery," said Marisa Fuentes, an associate professor in the Department of History at the New Brunswick campus.

"At that time the university administration did not know the history, other than it was the anniversary of its founding, and a few of the trustees’ names."

At the students' insistence, university officials conceded—with then chancellor Richard L. Edwards acknowledging complaints that the university had ignored its past, "such as that our campus is built on land taken from the Lenni-Lenape, and that a number of our founders and early benefactors were slave holders."

He launched the Committee on Enslaved and Disenfranchised Populations in Rutgers History in 2015, and out of that came the Scarlet and Black Project, an exploration of the experiences of Blacks and Native Americans at New Jersey's largest university.

The project yielded a rich trove of research and stories, including “Scarlet and Black: Slavery and Dispossession in Rutgers History," a volume edited and written by Rutgers scholars. The first of three historical volumes, it takes an unsparing look at how the university’s colonial-era founders and the institution itself benefited from the slave economy, and the central role that enslaved men and women played in the construction of what was then known as Queens College. Rutgers was founded in 1766.

But, just five years after the debut of the Scarlet and Black Project—a reference to the university’s colors as well as the African Americans directly impacted by the history—many Rutgers students are unaware of the work, or their school's history.

Sara Oscilowski, a third-year student, was with a friend in front of the Sojourner Truth Apartments, an attractive 14-story dorm named after the legendary abolitionist and women’s rights activist. It was the in-depth work of the Scarlet and Black project that revealed Truth had been enslaved during her childhood by the family of Jacob Rutsen Hardenbergh, the first president of Rutgers. The dorm was named after her in 2016.


The impact of the Scarlet and Black Project is not lost on Jonathan Holloway, a historian and the first Black president in the university’s history. He joined the university in the wake of the protests after George Floyd was killed and presides at a challenging time, when conservatives nationwide are suppressing efforts to teach American history under the pretext of fighting critical race theory.

“We have legislatures who are now trying to make it illegal—and this is a long history behind this thing—to teach certain aspects of our country’s past," Holloway told Gothamist, "literally making it illegal to teach enslavement as part of our country’s past.”

Holloway said this makes it especially important for the university to tell history, starting with its own.

Read entire article at Gothamist

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