Chancellor Richard L. Edwards created the Committee on Enslaved and Disenfranchised Populations in Rutgers History. With his guidance, the Committee was charged with seeking out the untold story of disadvantaged populations in the university’s history and recommending how Rutgers can best acknowledge their influence. Its initial work begins with Scarlet and Black, Volume 1: Slavery and Dispossession in Rutgers History, which traces the university’s early history, uncovering how the university benefited from the slave economy and how Rutgers came to own the land it inhabits. Below is the Chancellor's introduction to this initial work.
Scarlet and Black, Volume 1: Slavery and Dispossession in Rutgers History
Richard L. Edwards
The first stitch of this incredible project, Scarlet and Black, was sewn on May 11, 2015. On that day, in my office in Rutgers University’s iconic Old Queens Building, I met with a small group of students to discuss the current state of race relations at Rutgers.
In the course of our conversation, the students made themselves clear: improving the current racial and cultural climate at Rutgers was impossible without answering questions about the university’s early history.
After a decade at Rutgers as a dean, and then administrator, I felt that I was quite familiar with the oft-told narrative of our beginning days: the Dutch Reformed Church, the royal charter (1766), the first name (Queen’s College), the benefactor (Colonel Henry Rutgers), the second name (Rutgers College), and the land grant designation from the Morrill Act (1862), which launched the institution’s research ambitions.
Improving the current racial and cultural climate at Rutgers was impossible without answering questions about the university’s early history.
That accepted record was incomplete, the students said. They pointed to Craig Steven Wilder’s 2013 book, Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities as having clues to a deeper, more painful narrative that had yet to be told. Wilder, a professor of American history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, made reference in his book to many of our prominent founding families and their involvement in enslavement—Livingston, Hardenbergh, and Rutgers himself.
The subsequent exploration of the missing narrative of slavery and dispossession, requested by the students and undertaken by the university, must be put in context. Mere months after that meeting in May, many campuses throughout the country were heaved into turmoil as encounters between students and administrators gave rise to renewed activism and questions around what a university’s responsibilities are in providing to its students an inclusive and supportive academic environment. Intersecting with these conversations was the university’s planned yearlong celebration of its 250th anniversary.
Running from November 10, 2015, to November 10, 2016, the commemoration sought to pay tribute to an institution whose impact on our country over a quarter of a millennium could be rivaled only by a venerable few. A true telling of our early history was never more due—and never more necessary.
Many of the truths are complicated and uncomfortable.
From these converging factors, we have Scarlet and Black: Slavery and Dispossession in Rutgers History. The book is the result of the work of the Committee on Enslaved and Disenfranchised Populations in Rutgers History, which I formed in the fall of 2015. I asked the committee, chaired by Board of Governors Distinguished Professor of History Deborah Gray White, to seek out the untold history that we have ignored for too long, such as that our campus is built on land taken from the Lenni Lenape and that a number of our founders and early benefactors were slaveholders. Given our history as a colonial college, these facts are not unique to Rutgers, but I believed it was time that we began to recognize the role that disadvantaged populations such as African Americans and Native tribes played in the university’s development.
Rutgers is not the first institution to wrestle with such issues. Brown University, for instance, founded just two years before Rutgers, formed a committee charged by its then-president, Ruth Simmons, to “examine the University’s historical entanglement with slavery and the slave trade and report our findings openly and truthfully.” The Brown committee’s report was extensive and honest, and I asked our committee, which was to be composed of students, faculty, and staff, for the same vigorous pursuit of the truth.
Many of the truths reported within these pages by a dedicated team of researchers are complicated and uncomfortable. Take the example of Theodore Frelinghuysen, scion of one of the most influential and revered families of his day and ours. Frelinghuysen, whose forbears were early supporters of Rutgers’ founding, was a notable national figure in public life during the early and middle part of the 19th century and served for 12 years (1850–1862) as Rutgers’ seventh president. Before his time at Rutgers, he rose to prominence first as New Jersey attorney general, then as a United States senator (1829–1835).
It was as a senator that he gained notoriety as a fierce opponent of the removal of Native Americans from their lands. His six-hour speech against the Indian Removal Act of 1830 was not enough to halt its passing, but the “Christian Statesman,” as he was known, told his colleagues that “the Indians are men, endowed with kindred faculties and powers with ourselves”; he demanded to know “in what code of the law of nations, or by what process of abstract deduction, their rights have been extinguished?” Frelinghuysen was also an ardent opponent of slavery, calling the abhorrent institution a “moral evil.”
Though his opposition to slavery is well documented, Frelinghuysen supported a gradual end to its practice and was a proponent and leader of the American Colonization Society, which sought to remove blacks from America and “repatriate” them to Africa.
An enslaved man named Will helped lay the foundation of Old Queens.
This example and many others in this book raise complex questions for the university to consider as we begin our introspection and reconciliation with the past. During this celebratory year, I have repeatedly said that to truly praise Rutgers, we must honestly know it; and to do that, we must gain a fuller understanding of it. With this book, the first volume of Scarlet and Black, we have begun to do that. It covers the early decades of Rutgers history; in the works are other volumes that will carry the story up to the present.
While reviewing the manuscript for this book, I couldn’t help but recall that conversation with our students in May 2015. I kept thinking about them and about our committee’s discovery that an enslaved man named Will helped lay the foundation of Old Queens, our original and distinctive building—the building that houses my office and where we held that very first discussion. After reading the chapter in this book entitled “His Name Was Will,” I thought again of the students and of our conversation and I remarked to myself: “if only they knew.”
Now they do.