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The Slavery Legacy
Nearly a century and a half after the Emancipation Proclamation, the subject of slavery is back on the national agenda. A movement for government reparations to the descendants of slaves is being hotly debated on campus and in the media, and institutions and families are looking back uneasily at the presence of slavery in their own histories.
Yale’s own confrontation with the past came last summer, when a group of graduate students published a report pointing out that nine of the university’s residential colleges are named for men who owned slaves or supported slavery. The news came as a shock to many who thought of slaveholders as Southern plantation masters—not New England clergymen—and the University was forced to take another look at its designated heroes. A New Haven organization called on Yale to rename the colleges in question, and the social-service organization Dwight Hall seriously considered changing its name as a result of the report’s allegations that its namesake, Timothy Dwight, not only owned a slave but had been a supporter of slavery while president of the University.
Clearly, America has a long way to go in understanding slavery’s role in its making. It is a subject that Yale has been working on for years: Historians such as C. Vann Woodward and John Blassingame did groundbreaking work on slavery and its lasting impact. And since 1998, Yale’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition has been pursuing such an understanding through a full calendar of lectures, conferences, and workshops. Not only is the Center working to advance the state of knowledge about slavery as an American institution, it is also raising awareness of slavery’s role in world history and its international dimensions.
The Center’s work is inspired by that of its founding director, Sterling Professor of History Emeritus David Brion Davis. A leading authority on the history of slavery, Davis made his name as a scholar by writing the first comparative study of the institution. The book, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture, won the 1967 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. Davis is working to see that the Center views slavery not just as an American subject, but as a complex piece of human history.
Davis traces the Center’s own history to a lecture he gave in 1994 at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York on the origins of New World slavery. In the audience were two of the Morgan Library’s major benefactors—Richard Gilder ’54 and Lewis Lehrman ’60. Gilder and Lehrman together have amassed a collection of documents from American history worth hundreds of millions of dollars and placed it on loan to the Library. (Gilder and his family are also the primary donors behind Yale’s new Gilder Boathouse, and he helped his class raise a $70-million gift that was given to the University in 2000.) Over dinner that night, Gilder and Lehrman approached Davis about the idea of teaching a summer course on slavery for New York City teachers. Davis promptly devised a course and has taught it every summer since. And within a year, the two collectors had founded the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, which now offers courses and materials for teachers on a number of historical topics. “We want to broaden and deepen the understanding of American history, chiefly by reaching students through teachers,” said Gilder when the Institute was founded.
Davis says the Gilder Lehrman Center at Yale was a “direct outgrowth” of the Institute. Founded in November 1998 and funded by Gilder and Lehrman and by the University through the Yale Center for International and Area Studies (YCIAS), the Center is one of two institutions of its kind in the world devoted to the study of slavery. (The other, also founded in 1998, is at the University of Nottingham in England.) The Center operates out of a small suite of offices in Luce Hall, YCIAS’s headquarters on Hillhouse Avenue. Much of the Center’s activity is overseen by associate director Robert P. Forbes, a former student of Davis’s whose own research focuses on politics and slavery in early 19th-century America.
Within the academic community, the Center’s most visible initiative is its annual conference, at which scholars from around the world deliver papers. The Center also offers fellowships each year that invite established scholars to the campus for a semester to pursue research projects. “We put them to work,” says Forbes, “particularly in outreach workshops with school teachers.”
Such outreach to the community is the other half of the Center’s mission. Despite the new attention being paid to slavery, there is still a gap in understanding between scholars and the general public. To further its efforts to get the word out, the Center is hoping to fund a full-time staff member for outreach programs in the future.
But it was not that long ago that slavery was deemed unimportant even by historians. Davis, who did his graduate work in history at Harvard in the early 1950s, says that historians there “virtually ignored the subject.” The reason, he explains, was that while the Union had won the Civil War, the country gradually came to accept—or at least not to challenge—the Southern version of history in the years after Reconstruction. “The terrible price of reconciliation and reunion was marginalizing slavery and race,” he says.
Davis says that historians consistently understated the centrality of slavery to the rise of America and the New World, describing the institution as a marginal branch of Southern history and painting postwar Reconstruction—when blacks earned civil rights and participated in government—as a failed policy of radical zealots. Primary sources were ignored: Frederick Douglass’s autobiography, which today is a staple of high school and college reading lists, was out of print from the end of the Civil War until the 1960s.
Davis recalls that the standard work even at Harvard in his time was Ulrich B. Phillips’s American Negro Slavery (1918). Phillips, who was a professor of history at Yale in the 1930s, represented the dominant view when he maintained that Africans were an inferior race and that slavery was an effective means of civilizing them.
That view was challenged by Kenneth Stampp’s book The Peculiar Institution (1956), which portrayed slavery as harsh and brutal and worked from a premise of racial equality. The following decades saw an explosion of interest in Southern history in general and slavery in particular.
In the spring of 1955, as Davis was finishing his PhD, Kenneth Stampp arrived at Harvard as a visiting professor, and the two struck up a friendship. Stampp’s work made Davis realize how little he knew about slavery, and after finishing a dissertation that examined how different societies had viewed homicide throughout history, Davis decided to apply such a comparative approach to the study of slavery.
What he learned was that chattel slavery is as old as civilization itself; the first records date to ancient Mesopotamia. Davis recounted slavery’s emergence in pre-Islamic Arabia, in medieval Scandinavia, and in the Italian city-states of the 14th and 15th centuries.
The slave trade that would transform the New World began when the Portuguese started using West African slave labor to grow sugar on the Atlantic islands of Madeira and San Tome. In the 1570s, the Portuguese brought slaves to Brazil when they established sugar plantations there, and soon the transatlantic slave trade was thriving. Most scholars now agree that some 11 million Africans were taken from their homes to become slaves in the New World.
Today, the importance of slavery to the antebellum economy of the South—especially after Yale graduate Eli Whitney’s cotton gin helped popularize that crop across the South—is well known. But the popular image of the South as pro-slavery and the North as anti-slavery has obscured the degree to which the whole country had at various times depended on and exploited slave labor. It is for this reason that last summer’s “Yale, Slavery, and Abolition” report caused such a stir. The report (available online at http://www.yaleslavery.org) details the slaveowning and pro-slavery past of a number of Yale benefactors. The authors, graduate students Antony Dugdale, J.J. Fueser, and J. Celso de Castro Alves, said they were responding to a University-produced Tercentennial brochure which touted Yale’s ties to the abolitionist movement but neglected to mention its pro-slavery relationships.
Many of the report’s facts were surprising. While John C. Calhoun’s ardent defense of slavery is well known (and troubling to many associated with Calhoun College), few knew that Congregational ministers Ezra Stiles, Jonathan Edwards, Timothy Dwight, and John Davenport had owned slaves. Or that Bishop George Berkeley had given the University a plantation in Rhode Island that likely produced income for the University on the backs of slave labor. Or that Samuel F.B. Morse, while not a slave owner himself, had written pro-slavery tracts as late as the 1860s.
On the other side of the coin, the report discussed Yale’s ties to the abolitionist movement and suggested that the University had been less than generous in remembering James Hillhouse, the U.S. senator and treasurer of Yale who was a vocal opponent of slavery in Congress as early as 1799. Just after the report was made public, Yale announced a series of events in September to honor Hillhouse, though officials said the plans predated the report. (Ironically, there is evidence to suggest that Hillhouse himself may have owned a slave.)
The report caused a media sensation during the lazy pre-September 11 summer. Newspapers around the world picked up the news, and opinions were offered freely. The Hartford Courant criticized Yale for its “insensitivity and lack of balance in choosing who or what to honor over the years,” and Brent Staples wrote on the New York Times’s editorial page that the report “paints a damning portrait of Yale’s academic leadership during the term of its pro-slavery president Timothy Dwight.” But Washington Times columnist Diana West dismissed the report as “just one more jiggle in the Great Reparations Shakedown,” and the New Haven Register said the document proved that “a little knowledge combined with a narrow perspective can be a truly dangerous thing.”
The reaction on campus was no less divided. The Yale administration offered a muted response, welcoming the report’s contribution to the University’s knowledge of its history and maintaining that “few, if any, institutions or individuals from the period before Emancipation remained untainted by slavery.” Meanwhile, a group headed by local African American clergymen issued a set of reparations demands to the University: That Yale rename the colleges named for slaveholders, that the Yale Homebuyer Program be extended to all New Haven citizens (not just Yale employees), that the University invest further in economic development in the city, and that the title “master” be discontinued in the residential colleges.
By year’s end, though, the only tangible result of the debate was a plaque inside the entrance to Dwight Hall, the University’s social service organization. Dwight Hall’s student-run cabinet considered a name change because of the report’s allegations about its namesake, but in the end decided that such a change would “undermine a long and outstanding legacy of good work” that students have done under the Dwight Hall name. Instead, the group installed the plaque, which reads: “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.”
At the Gilder Lehrman Center, Davis and Forbes, who have made it their mission to raise awareness about the pervasiveness of slavery in America, greeted the report with mixed emotions. While Davis says he welcomed its attempt to “look at the dark side” of Yale’s past, he is critical of the work’s scholarship. “It is certainly flawed in various ways,” he says. “It comes out as an unmitigated indictment of Yale, and tends to put Timothy Dwight on the same level as John C. Calhoun. There is no context, no sense of an informed perspective. It was a shame that this paper was done not only by amateurs, but without any consultation with people who know something about Yale’s past and about slavery.”
Indeed, none of the report’s authors were graduate students in history. And as the report’s acknowledgements page indicates, all three of the authors are past or present leaders of the Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO), the group seeking to organize a union of graduate teaching assistants, and the report was prepared with assistance from union volunteers, leading some to question the authors’ objectivity. The Yale Daily News wrote in December that the report “represents the co-opting of the darkest chapters of American history for present-day political gain.”
Antony Dugdale, one of the report’s authors, says that “we worked extra hard to make sure the paper included the good and the bad. We did not have a political aim. If looking at both sides is viewed as partisan, I don’t know what scholarship really is.” He also says that the report was in fact reviewed by a number of scholars of slavery and American history.
Perhaps the greatest lesson of the “Yale, Slavery, and Abolition” report is about the pervasive influence of slavery not just at Yale, but throughout New England and the entire country in the antebellum years. “It seems to me that Yale was quite representative of its time and of the North,” says Davis. “Yale produced both abolitionists and Calhoun.”
The issues highlighted by the report are not likely to go away soon, and the Gilder Lehrman Center has its own plans to address them. In September, the Center and the Law School will cosponsor a conference titled “Yale, New Haven and Slavery.” Historians, philosophers, and legal experts will discuss the University’s past and the issue of reparations.
Robert Forbes hopes the work being done at the Center will help reconcile the extreme interpretations of history that emerge in the debate over slavery. “Many people have had a hard time accepting the centrality of slavery because they have an unrealistically celebratory view of American history,” he says. “The response is often a view of American history as simply a story of enslavement and oppression. In fact, neither of these are true and both are true. It’s the intersection of America as utopia and America as dystopia that has generated what’s interesting about the American experience.”
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