Black On Campus
Higher Education and the African American Experience

Slavery on Campus, Part I: UNC Chapel Hill and Yale University

February 20th, 2007 by Ajuan Mance

Brown University’s new Committee on Slavery and Justice, a faculty and student investigation of an uncomfortable piece of our university’s – and our nation’s – history, is designed to foster discussion of the difficult subject in ways that prepare students to engage in and promote the meaningful exchange of ideas. The committee was formed on the belief that powerful debate is one of the hallmarks of intellectual engagement and that universities do well when they encourage examination that rests on a factual rather than an emotional basis. They also do well when they educate students about how to accept and make use of the variety of valid approaches and opinions that can proliferate on any one subject.

The purpose of this undertaking is to enable a group of university scholars to investigate the origins of Brown University, with attention to the educational insights such a study might provide our students and the wider community. This review, though important in its own right, is especially important for an institution like Brown that was founded in 1764, a period in our nation’s history when nearly all commerce and wealth was in some manner entangled with the slave trade. For example, construction of the University’s first building involved the labor of Providence area slaves. Nearly all universities and organizations with roots in this era have similar stories, often revealed with varying levels of candor. At Brown, many alumni and students have been offended by our unwillingness to confront our past in an honest and forthright manner. Understandably proud of their association with the University, they asked that we clarify this history in the full light of what we could uncover through rigorous scholarship. 

With these words, Brown University president Ruth J. Simmons brought national attention to the question of the role and relevance of slavery in U.S. higher ed history. Her leadership on this topic has become a touchstone for a national discussion of  the role of slave labor, slavery profits, slave owners, and pro-slavery partisans in America’s colleges and universities.

I spent some time searching the internet to see how and when institutions used online media to address the role of slavery on their campuses. Here is some of what I found:

1.UNC Chapel Hill: This institution is a model of full disclosure. As part of the UNC Chapel Hill Virtual Museum, the University has created an online exhibit titled “Slavery and the University.” This fascinating and highly accessible website, complete with photos and profiles of both UNC-related slaves and slaveholders, provides a detailed account of the relationship of slavery to the institution’s growth, during those key years prior to the Emancipation Proclamation. I highly recommend this site as a bold and informative exploration of the links between the institution of slavery and U.S. higher education, this from a southern university whose ties to the peculiar institution are quite deep.

Slavery played an integral role in the establishment and maintenance of the college, its funding, and the financial well-being of key faculty, students, presidents, and trustees. Several existing campus buildings were built by slaves, and there are campus buildings named after slaveholders.

  • Old East (the first building erected on campus), Old West, and Gerrard Hall were built by enslaved Black people.
  • University presidents Joseph Caldwell and David Swain owned slaves.
  • Even faculty from outside the South like Englishman James Phillips and Connecticut native Elisha Mitchell purchased slaves after moving to Chapel Hill. Rev. Phillips conducted religious services for slaves on Sunday afternoons and helped build a shed for slave worship behind the Presbyterian church. In 1919, the university named its new mathematics building in honor of James Phillips and two of his relatives.
  • The university’s antebellum trustees were typically large slaveholders. Of the original forty trustees appointed in 1789, at least thirty owned slaves. Among them, Benjamin Smith of Brunswick County owned the most with 221. In 1851, the university named a library for Smith that is now known as PlayMakers Theatre. Other trustees with substantial numbers of slaves included Stephen Cabarrus, Samuel Johnston, Willie Jones, and Richard Dobbs Spaight. In addition to being trustees, Spaight signed the U.S. Constitution for North Carolina, and Johnston was the state’s first U.S. senator. Johnston, Smith, and Spaight also served as governors of North Carolina.
  • University trustee Paul Cameron was North Carolina’s largest slaveholder in 1860 and one of the wealthiest men in the South. He owned 12,675 acres of land and 470 slaves in Orange County, North Carolina, as well as plantations in Alabama and Mississippi. Cameron was a political ally of President David Swain, who contributed funds to reopen the university after the Civil War and then to construct Memorial Hall. Cameron Street, a street named for this highly problematic figure, runs through the center of campus.

2.Yale University

Yale University is another model of candor and culpability around the issue of slavery and institutional history. The degree to which the legacy of slavery is intertwined into the life of contemporary Yale students — in the form of building names, fellowship funding, and other aspects of Yale life — is quite surprising, especially for a Northern university that prides itself on fostering and valuing the highest levels of intellectual development.

Berkeley College
Calhoun College
Davenport College
TD College
JE College
Morse College
Pierson College
Saybrook College
Branford College

Silliman College
Stiles College
Trumbull College
Divinity School
Law School
Street Hall
Woodbridge Hall

  • Yale’s first endowed professorship, the Livingstonian Professorship of Divinity, was established with a donation from Col. Phillip Livingston, a prosperous slave trader.
  • Similarly, Yale’s first library fund, and first scholarship fund were established using donations from 18th-century slaveholders.
  • Yale also graduated several men who would become prominent abolitionists, including Samuel Hopkins (class of 1741), James Hillhouse (1773), Cassius Clay (1832), and Charles Torrey (1833).

One of my goals in sharing this information is to foster the spirit of full disclosure. Today’s college campuses are a hotbed of debate on issues of race, ethnicity, and privilege and the relationship of all three to U.S. higher education. Far too often, the subtext of such debates is the idea that the influx of unprecedent numbers of people of color has politicized and racialized the college campus in ways that detract from the overall mission of the institution, the dissemination of objective knowledge. To understand the degree to which slavery, pro-and anti-slavery debates, and related issues played a role in the establishment of many of our nation’s oldest institutions of higher learning is to re-contextualize contemporary debates around race and ethnicity on campus as simply the most recent chapter in a centuries-old discussion, carried out in the boardrooms, classrooms, and chapels of U.S. colleges and universities.

Posted by Ajuan Mance

Posted in African Americans, Black History, Higher Education, Ruth Simmons, Slavery

One Response

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