January 26, 2017
By JENNIFER PELTZ
Columbia University was founded partly with slave traders’ money, counted slaveholders among its early leaders and let at least one prominent student have a slave with him at college, according to a report released Tuesday.
Columbia is the latest in a series of elite U.S. universities to account publicly for their historical ties to the bondage of millions of African-Americans. The research, led by a prominent historian, traces the 263-year-old Ivy League university’s entanglement with the proceeds, promoters and opponents of slavery.
“From the outset, slavery was intertwined with the life of the college,” and it remained so for more than half a century, says the study, first reported by The New York Times.
Since 2003, when Brown University began studying its onetime ties to the slave trade, dozens of other colleges and universities have started examining whether they benefited from slavery or the displacement of Native Americans, said Craig Steven Wilder, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology history professor who wrote a 2013 book on the subject.
Research has pointed out painful truths.
Two of Georgetown University’s Jesuit presidents arranged the sale of 272 slaves to pay off the university's debt in 1838. The university has renamed buildings that bore the former presidents’ names and has announced an admissions preference for descendants of Jesuit-owned slaves.
Harvard University posted a plaque honoring slaves who worked on campus in the 1700s. The University of Virginia, where slaves built the campus and labored in its hotels and kitchens, named a new dorm after a couple of them.
Columbia President Lee Bollinger encouraged his university’s project, but it’s unclear what actions, if any, might follow. A university spokesman referred an inquiry Tuesday to the report’s author, Pulitzer Prize-winning Columbia historian Eric Foner, who said there weren’t any concrete proposals.
Columbia’s Black Students’ Organization and undergraduate student government didn’t immediately respond to messages about the report.
The report shows “how complex, but deep, are the connections between this institution and the institution of slavery” at a time when it was common across the emerging United States, Foner said.
The 66 donors who launched what was then King’s College in 1754 included at least four slave traders, according to the report, researched largely by Foner’s students.
The report found at least half of Columbia’s first 10 presidents owned slaves at some point; the first, Samuel Johnson, likely had slaves in his home at the university. Other Columbia administrators owned slaves as late as 1816, according to the report.
New York started taking steps toward abolishing slavery in 1799 but didn't do so fully for another few decades.
The buying and selling of human beings even came up in class at what was then known as a merchants’ college: a 1760s math problem asked students to calculate investors’ profits in a slave-trading voyage.
And when George Washington’s stepson John Custis briefly studied at the college in 1773, he took along a slave, the report said.
Still, some of the college’s leaders, professors and alumni joined anti-slavery groups as early as the 1780s. A couple were prominent abolitionists, including 1830s graduate John Jay II, who became a lawyer noted for defending fugitive slaves.
During the Civil War, Columbia became a center of pro-Union and pro-emancipation sentiment.