By Ryan Velez
Institutes of higher learning had to take a long look inward following last year’s revelations that Georgetown University sold 272 of its slaves in 1838 to pay off debts. How many other of these prestigious schools owe part of their history and prosperity to this practice in some way, shape, or form? And perhaps most importantly, how can they reckon these two different sides? A recent article from The Atlantic provides some insight into the process and findings of Columbia University as it tries to look for answers.
At Columbia, a new research project has been launched to delve into the university’s history with slavery and provide transparency for everyone. It is being headed by Professor Eric Foner, who was interviewed by The Atlantic to share insight on the project. Foner notes that Craig Wilder’s book, Ebony and Ivy triggered the discussion at Columbia. The book is about institutions of higher learning and their relationship with slavery.
While the direct connection to slavery would slowly dissipate with slavery being outlawed in New York, people in the city still had much of their money tied into the South and slavery.
“[Columbia University] President [Lee] Bollinger asked if we were doing anything similar and I said, ‘No, but I’ve thought about it.’ We knew Yale, Harvard, and Brown had done something—Princeton is doing something. It seemed like the time had come.”
While the findings don’t lead to a plantation or owning slaves, mainly due to the fact that Columbia’s lack of dorms meant no Southern students, there is a tie, mainly in the elite of the city, many of whom played a role in the school’s only financing. Many of these people and their families grew up with slaves, including early presidents and students. In addition, the wealth that initially went into these coffers was made in the slave trade in some cases, albeit indirectly.
In regards to how people should react to these findings, Foner says it is too hard to tell what the implications will be, particularly within the Columbia community. Regardless, he believes people need to understand what took place, regardless of their connection to the school. “But it’s an important feature of our history. It’s been really ignored in the official histories of Columbia. We’re doing what universities are supposed to do, produce knowledge and disseminate it, uncovering neglected piece of our history. It illuminates the history of not only the school but of New York, too,” he concludes.