Yale Grad Students Expose Their University's Connection to Slavery
November 16, 2002 3:46 PM   Subscribe

Yale Grad Students Expose Their University's Connection to Slavery A furor has developed at Yale University over a report indicting Yale funders and alumni from the 17th to 19th centuries for owning slaves or supporting the institution of slavery. The authors of the report even show that nine out of ten residential colleges at Yale are named after known slaveowners or pro-slavery advocates. The university points out that the report was union-funded, accusing the union of trying to make Yale look bad during labor negotiations. Yes, but does that make it any less true?
posted by jonp72 (26 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Smells like a money grab to me.
posted by Beholder at 3:52 PM on November 16, 2002

It's good that someone did this research - but I'm not sure what the union may hope to gain from it, nor should they expect anything.
posted by owillis at 3:56 PM on November 16, 2002

Just a quick fact check: There are actually twelve residential colleges at Yale. The other two (Saybrook and Branford) are named after towns in Connecticut.
posted by angrynerd at 4:00 PM on November 16, 2002

Money grab? Yale has a history of treating their employees bad, and considering most of the union employees are minorities then yes the slave issue is legit. Yale sits next to some of the worst ghettos in New Haven, and New Haven is the 4th poorest city in the nation so Yale should just dig into those deep pockets, and pay these folks a decent wage, it'll help the people, and the local economy.
posted by jbou at 4:01 PM on November 16, 2002

So what? Lots of rich people back then had slaves. And lots of rich people had ties to fancy colleges. I don't understand why this is news.

We're smarter now, but back when Yale was starting out, slavery was more socially acceptable. Why is it surprising that back in the era of slavery, important people had slaves?
posted by katieinshoes at 4:03 PM on November 16, 2002

It just so happens that Antony Dugdale, one of the writers of this slavery paper, also happens to be "a long-time organizer for the Graduate Employees and Students Organization, a group seeking to form a teaching assistant labor union."

So it seems that there may be a tie between unionization efforts and the timing and tenor of this paper. It also seems that the motives of the GESO (and, perhaps, by proxy Dugdale and his crew) have more to do with padding the pockets of Grad student employees (teaching assistants, lab employees, etc.) than they do with noble efforts on behalf of the "exploited" facilities and maintenance workers. Would the GESO and its affiliates be struggling so hard for the other unionization efforts if it didn't mean a piece of the "Yale" pie for them? Doubt it. And their continual effort to play the race card in what is a labor dispute is deplorable. It's not big news that the earlier settlers and founders of both Yale and New Haven did things that are unconscionable to modern minds. But how do such past actions invalidate or indeed have any bearing on Yale today? The slave owners of the past are long dead, along with their culture. To associate such issues with contemporary labor problems is just an academically-based smear campaign. The same accusations (and far worse ones) could be made about academic institutions worldwide.
posted by sir walsingham at 4:28 PM on November 16, 2002

"some scholars are charging that the report is a flawed piece of scholarship because it lacks historical context." (from the last link)

Debatable though the above statement surely is, if these "scholars" are, as I assume, Yale scholars, then I sure wouldn't want to be one of those doctoral candidates whose name is attached to this report. "Value of research/value to history" issues and "union-funded" issues aside, it seems that, as part of the work going towards a PhD, publishing a report that makes the conferring institution look sinister is a sign of dumbness. How could anyone, in good conscience, grant a doctoral degree to someone without the common sense to first get the degree, and then publish the report. I'm sure there were plenty of innocuous thesis topics they could've selected in lieu of this.

Glad the report is out there anyway. Plan to give it a good read. Thanks for the post.

p.s. [to KatieinShoes] I see where you're coming from. The "scholars" to whom I referred made the same argument. Whether we're smarter now is dubious at best, but you're right that some of the more ignominious social norms of yesteryear are not, thank goodness, those of today. I agree with the "that was then, this is now" mindset only to the extent that we are reminding ourselves not to dwell on past wrongs at the expense of paying attention to the social realities of today, and what those realities indicate for tomorrow.

But these "scholars" are arguing that the research is flawed -- should be ignored, in other words -- because (and here I'm inferring, so I could be wrong) it fails to point out that slavery was a generally accepted fact among the majority of white America in that time. Suppose they had pointed it out. All it would do is reinforce what the report argues, namely that Yale was not any more socially enlightened than most other people and institutions of the time. I, for one, would take the historical context as a given and therefore not flawed. I mean, honestly, who do these "scholars" think the report was written for? Third graders?
posted by Bixby23 at 4:40 PM on November 16, 2002

I feel compelled to jump into the fray, because of the shoot-the-messenger tone that this debate is taking. The report is not peer reviewed, but most of the criticisms aired in the Yale Daily News rarely touch on the substance of the report, choosing instead to focus on the report's union funding. In addition, the only one drawing the connection between the labor union and the report is Yale University itself. From the articles, it appears that the union was very discreet about funding the slavery report and that the union's role did not surface until scrutiny from the Yale administration and the Yale Daily News. All of this, of course, provides the union with free publicity, but this was not result of the union's own actions.

I would also like to address the "slavery was acceptable in the context of its time" argument. Many of the residential colleges named after slavery advocates were named well after the Civil War, some as late as the 1960s. (For example, one residential college was named after Samuel Morse who was not only proslavery, but anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic to boot.) In other words, the report is not merely about slavery in the distant past, but the hidden commemoration and whitewashing of slavery in the present. In this sense, the debate over the report is strikingly similar to the controversies over the Confederate flag in South Carolina and Georgia and I view both the Confederate flag debate and the Yale slavery debate as equally legitimate.
posted by jonp72 at 5:02 PM on November 16, 2002

Bixby23: How could anyone, in good conscience, grant a doctoral degree to someone without the common sense to first get the degree, and then publish the report. I'm sure there were plenty of innocuous thesis topics they could've selected in lieu of this.

This then being the most important value to teach people, especially in an Ivy-league institution: don't rock the boat, don't question authority. Very "Scent of A Woman" or "Dead Poet's Society", that. As jonp72 noted, there's an disinGlennuous effort to pigpile on the question of the movitation for this report- so as to dodge the original point of how slavery and racism still have tendrils into today's world, if for no other reason than 2 of the last 3 presidents are Yale grads who got in because of big money and alumni connections. The wealth and privilege of the Yales and their alumni passes from generation to generation, so it's not too far a leap to see how the original blood money still ensures the six-figure salaries of pin-striped Yale grads today.
posted by hincandenza at 5:31 PM on November 16, 2002

Slavery is still alive and well in the world, unfortunately. Here's a previous post about modern slavery.
posted by homunculus at 5:32 PM on November 16, 2002

tempest in teapot. Yes: slavery helped many places, including Yale and T. Jefferson and G Washington...the Yale union is a separate issue. Does the union ask for reparations? No. In fact Yale as ponted out merely did what was being done at the time....and many many years later Yale had a quota on Jews allowed in, though ironically, their motto etc in Hebrew. And now the current president a Jew...
Support services at just about every college in America are underpaid. And so too the Grad assistants who do most of the grid work so the top dog profs, tenured, can have nice work loads and publish...this at many public schools to.
posted by Postroad at 5:35 PM on November 16, 2002

I hope those Students dropped out of that institution immediately!

If they were so concerned they surly would not want their name associated with Yale.
posted by Steve_at_Linnwood at 5:48 PM on November 16, 2002

I'm just imagining that, if Yale were a southern school, you wouldn't be seeing the (at least borderline) reactionary take on the matter that I'm seeing here. "It was so long ago!" "What does slavery have to do with Yale today?" Heh.
posted by raysmj at 7:56 PM on November 16, 2002

Prove to me that Yale currently has ties to the slave trade, then I'll pay attention.
posted by Hildago at 8:26 PM on November 16, 2002

Beyond being pro-slavery in an era when most were pro-slavery and anti-Catholic in an era when many were anti-semitic, perhaps Samuel Morse has a dorm named after him because he invented one of the most important devices in American history after graduating from Yale.

Similar stories apply to nearly all the other donors.

My university has a statue of MLK Jr., but I hope that in the a possible future where adultery is considered unforgivable, the statue won't be torn down.

As for the original discussion, sure, it's an interesting topic. However, unless they say in the report that Yale had any more significant slavery connections than other schools of that era, public or private, I fail to see why this is anything more than the tempest in a teapot that Postroad mentioned.
posted by Kevs at 9:32 PM on November 16, 2002

Um, I'm keeping my dog out of this fight for now (Yale Good vs. Yale Bad), but I thought the linked material was very interesting. I admit, I had no idea how common slavery was in New England in the 18th century. Many of the men for whom the colleges are named were obviously highly conflicted, owning slaves themselves, while inveighing against the institution of slavery; supporting the gradual abolition of slavery in their states while being slow to free their own slaves. They embodied in themselves the slowly changing attitudes of their society.

Interesting, disturbing stuff. Thanks, jonp72! Ethical ideas do evolve. It makes me wonder what what behavior we routinely accept today that will be obviously immoral to the sensibilities of people 300 years in the future.

OT: BTW, speaking as non-web designer/Joe User, I liked the usability of this site: simple, readable design, easy-to-understand menus, in-text links that went where you expected and led to material logically related to the link source. Pages loaded rapidly. Yah, I know, design is circa 1997, but I don't care. I'll take usability and consideration for the user over glitter any day.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 10:10 PM on November 16, 2002

When the internal combustion engine becomes illegal, are you going to pay reparations to the families of cyclists who died from engine induced health problems?

It's the past. It was legal then, it isn't now. Personally I don't see that the problem is...
posted by twine42 at 3:02 AM on November 17, 2002

Slithy: this kinda takes us back to why the Civil War happened in the first place: it wasn't slavery. The north was mostly concerned with the economic damage seperation would inflict on them (no easy market for domestic manufactured goods.) Emancipation was a useful political and military tool for Lincoln to use; had the South's economy been better able to function sans slavery, the South might very well have been fighting for the freedom of the African American.
posted by Yelling At Nothing at 3:32 AM on November 17, 2002

an amusing asdie: one of the first--perhaps the first--black athletes into Yale was a guy named Levi Jackson (he now is bigshot for Ford). He was an amazing fullback. He had a brother, Reddick. Reddick was a great track star. Yale football assumed that given his build and his peed he would be a great football player to. Then they discovered that whenever anyone got close to Reddick, he would drop to the ground. No one understood this till he explained that his running legs were too precious to have broken play football. Jackson smart. Yale dumb.
posted by Postroad at 5:48 AM on November 17, 2002

What is most troubling about this issue is not the factual connection between Yale and slavery; it is the pragmatic question of what to do in the face of it, 150+ years later.

If there were some way of taking this on board and reacting to it in a contextually appropriate way, we wouldn't be having such a heated conversation about it.

But the truth is that nothing feels apposite-- apologies, reparations, name changes.

What now?
posted by yellowcandy at 6:28 AM on November 17, 2002

this kinda takes us back to why the Civil War happened in the first place: it wasn't slavery.

Well, for the South it sure as hell was about slavery.
Or shall I say: it was "to preserve their way of life"?

The union argument is piss-poor: Using past events that have little or no connection to a current struggle (Yale did not directly own slaves, does not today, and the low wages paid to Yale employees, including non-black workers, are not connect to slavery) is purely politics and very little history.

History is not a weapon and should not used as such. Here, the remedy sought is not directly connected to the claimed past violations, and is insulting to the pain and suffering of real slaves (past and present). I think competitive wages should be paid regardless of Yale's tenuous connection to events long ago. The persistence of such argument makes me think that the union is grasping at straws because of a lack of any other argument. Too bad, because I do support their underlying struggle for better treatment.
posted by Bag Man at 3:00 PM on November 17, 2002 [1 favorite]

Yelling, that's an extremely reductive view of history. It sure as hell was about slavery, or abolition, for a lot of people. John Brown didn't raid a munitions depot because he wanted a market for northern goods; his picture wasn't in the parlors of thousands of Northerners because he was their Alan Greenspan. That said, there were practical political aspects to the war that shouldn't be ignored. The context frequently given for the Emancipation Proclamation, for instance, was to galvanize support in the European states that were preparing to recognize the Confederacy.
posted by dhartung at 7:06 PM on November 17, 2002 [1 favorite]

perhaps Samuel Morse has a dorm named after him because he invented one of the most important devices in American history after graduating from Yale.

Yes, but you also have to acknowledge that the Morse residential college was named in 1962, long after the telegraph was superseded in importance by other inventions. Regardless of whether anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism were acceptable in Morse's time, they certainly weren't considered acceptable by most reasonably enlightened people in 1962.

this kinda takes us back to why the Civil War happened in the first place: it wasn't slavery.

Yes, the Civil War had other causes in addition to slavery, but to deny that slavery did not play a major role is to fly in the face of the facts. All you have to do is look at the multiple references to slavery in the Constitution of the Confederate States of America. The state's rights argument also falls apart on closer scrutiny, because the fugitive slave laws passed in 1793 and 1850 greatly infringed on the sovereignty of antislavery states. Additional arguments that downplay the role of slavery in sparking the Civil War are debunked here.

By the way, I'm not advocating that anything be "torn down" as in the Martin Luther King Jr. statue example. In many cases, positive changes could be made simply by adding a new commemorative plaque without harming anything else.
posted by jonp72 at 7:09 PM on November 17, 2002

Yes, but does that make it any less true? . No, but does anyone really care?
posted by MikeMc at 7:45 PM on November 17, 2002

I'm surprised no one mentionned Yale's connection to the Skull & Bones secret society.
posted by freakystyley at 7:07 AM on November 18, 2002

Sorry for the history rant, but here goes:
Folks, slavery was AN issue-- not the only one, not necessarily the most important one -- for the Civil War. Robert E. Lee, when asked at the start to serve as Commander of the Union army, declined and said he had to return to his country (Virginia). States' individualities were recognized by everyone, in an era when travel was time-consuming (not a big jump to expecting states' rights). And Americans did not (I believe) formally and regularly express a national sense-of-self, through a common Pledge of Allegiance or National Hymn.

BTW, the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves ONLY in the rebelling states, NOT in areas where it could actually be enforced (like the border states). Consider, too, that Lincoln did his share of undermining basic liberties & rights (e.g., suspending habeas corpus) Lastly, the Confederate Gov't may have been "pro-slavery" (or pro-citizens' property rights, or whatever), but I suspect that the average soldier wasn't a slaveowner: my grandfather's grandfather was a Confederate soldier, and my grandfather's parents were sharecroppers (yes, all whites).

Getting back to the original subject, how does it honestly matter today who thought what/did what/funded what in the past? G. Washington owned slaves & freed them upon his death; T. Jefferson owned slaves (and actively campaigned against slavery), and when he died they were sold to pay his many bills. Should either of their contributions (or anybody else'e, who did things not-P.C. by today's standards) be tossed out the window?

I just wish our society just could get past the "entitlement mentality" that has gripped it since the New Deal, as well as the need to feel "personally ashamed" about the past. Both cloud today's needs and ills, and prevent better, tangible change from happening (like paying support staff a higher earned wage!).
posted by PennyPrune at 2:25 PM on November 18, 2002

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