Columbia and Slavery

By Alfred L. Brophy
Issue date: 11/21/06

Brown University’s Committee on Slavery and Justice recently made a report that
details the connections of the Brown family to both the slave trade and to antislavery
advocacy. Brown’s report is the most comprehensive of several recent discussions
on other campuses. Students at Yale and the University of Virginia are talking
about their universities’ connections to slavery. The University of North Carolina
sponsored an exhibit on slavery at that school. Mostly campus explorations involve
talk about the past. However, in 2002 Vanderbilt University tried to drop "Confederate"
from the name of a building on its campus. The United Daughters of the Confederacy,
who had given money in the 1930s for the building, sued and won.

Before the Civil War many educational institutions-both North and South-benefited
from slavery. Harvard Law School’s first endowed chair was funded by a man,
Isaac Royall, who made a fortune from his slaves’ labor. But schools were not
just beneficiaries of slavery; they were supporters of it as well. William and
Mary Professor Thomas Roderick Dew wrote what became our country’s leading proslavery
tract. Randolph-Macon College’s President William Smith wrote a college textbook
on proslavery thought. It taught that abolition would be an "essential
evil-a curse" for slaves.

Then there is Columbia University’s Barnard College, which opened in 1889,
more than two decades after the end of slavery. It was named after F.A.P. Barnard,
who was president of Columbia in the years after the Civil War and was an important
proponent of women’s education. Barnard served in the War Department during
the Civil War and thus helped to end slavery.

Before the Civil War, Barnard was a professor at the University of Alabama,
where he benefited from the system of slavery. One slave worked as his laboratory
assistant. Barnard’s connections to slavery go deeper than a nostalgic story
about a lab assistant, however. He also appears to have owned several women.
In the 1850s, when Barnard was chancellor at the University of Mississippi,
he expelled a student who attacked one of his female slaves. The student then
complained that Barnard relied on testimony of a slave against a white person.
Mississippi’s trustees tried and acquitted Barnard of that offense.

We find slavery is linked to many of our institutions and some may question
whether we should be honoring people with such connections to slavery. Yet,
names of colleges and buildings are part of traditions. In remembering and learning
about those traditions, we learn more about ourselves. And we learn that a person
or an institution connected to slavery can also be the vehicle for our liberation
as a people. Now when we think about Barnard College we can also remember and
honor the people whose labor and suffering contributed to our nation’s growth.

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