Columbia Unearths Its Ties to Slavery

The New York Times
January 23, 2017
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 a Girl.”

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.”

“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 centuries.”

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 increase them.

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 century.

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 African-Americans.

“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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