Our school’s namesake Henry Rutgers (1745-1830) was a trustee and an important donor during the college's struggles in the early nineteenth century. Undergraduate classes were suspended at Queen’s College in 1816, but trustees worked to get the college back on solid footing financially. When the college reopened in 1825, the new president Rev. Philip Milledoler proposed to change the school’s name to Rutgers College in honor of one of the most benevolent members of the Dutch Reformed Church. Soon after, Henry Rutgers provided an endowment for the college and purchased a bell for the cupola of the Old Queens building. This bell is still in operation today for special ceremonies and events.
Henry Rutgers was a slaveholder for nearly all of his life. He was a wealthy Dutch landowner and developer in New York City where slaveholding was common among his class. His father and grandfather had owned slaves. By the end of the American Revolution, Henry Rutgers supported state laws to limit the slave trade, but he personally continued to exploit slave labor for decades after. According to federal census records, he was the owner of two enslaved people in 1790, five in 1800, and three in 1810.
In 1817, Henry Rutgers decided to manumit and set free a black man named Thomas Boston. Here is a record of Thomas Boston’s manumission, which was preserved by the New York Manumission Society. However, Henry Rutgers continued to own human beings after he manumitted Thomas Boston. The 1820 census shows that Rutgers still owned one slave.
Henry Rutgers lived for 85 years and witnessed tremendous changes during his lifetime: in 1827, three years before his death, slavery was finally abolished in his home state of New York.