Universities Must Reckon with Their Pasts

Yale’s namesake was a slave owner and a slave trader.

Just a few days ago, we at Ivy Coach saluted Princeton University’s Board of Trustees for alas deciding to cease honoring the legacy of Woodrow Wilson. Wilson, a former Princeton and U.S. president, was the namesake of Princeton’s school of public policy and one of its six residential colleges. But the man’s racism “was significant and consequential even by the standards of his own time,” as Princeton’s current president recently declared. Thus Princeton’s school of public policy and the residential college will no longer bear his name. And while we applaud Princeton for finally choosing to do the right thing, it’s not like Princeton is the only university that should be facing a reckoning with its past.

Yale’s Namesake Was A Slave Owner and Slave Trader

As but one example, Yale University is named after Elihu Yale, a slave owner and a slave trader. Joseph Yannielli writes in a piece published in Yale’s digital archives entitled “Elihu Yale was a Slave Trader,” “Historians have long pointed out that Yale (the University) is deeply implicated in the institution of slavery. Many of its prominent buildings are named after slaveholders or slavery apologists. It housed so many southern students that it briefly seceded from the Union at the start of the Civil War. Craig Wilder’s wonderful book Ebony & Ivy, published last year, shows that Yale is not alone in this regard. All of early America’s leading universities, both north and south, promoted and profited from slavery, racism, and colonialism. At the same time, college campuses were battlegrounds where antislavery students and faculty engaged in dramatic confrontations with their opponents and developed new political movements. Oddly enough, none of the scholarship on these issues mentions that Elihu Yale, the namesake of this august and venerable institution, was himself an active and successful slave trader.”

America’s Early Universities Must Reckon with Their Pasts

And while some folks are calling on Yale to change its name, our famously accurate crystal ball predicts that will never happen. Yet just because the school, which has existed since the the 18th century, decides against changing its name doesn’t mean the institution can’t reckon with its past and begin the long overdue task of atoning for its sins, for its ties to our nation’s greatest sin — the heinous institution of slavery. In fact, Georgetown — which, like “all of early America’s leading universities” as Yannielli writes, has strong ties to slavery — has already begun that difficult task. It’s high time that early America’s other leading universities follow suit.

 
 

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