On November 23, 2016, David Furst of WNYC News radio interviewed Professor Deborah Gray White about the work of uncovering Rutgers University’s historical ties to slavery.
Listen to the interview:
A number of colleges across the nation are taking steps to confront their own historical ties to racism and slavery, and one of those is Rutgers — New Jersey’s state university. Last week, the school published a book called Scarlet and Black, Volume 1: Slavery and Dispossession in Rutgers History. Among other things, the report details how some of the university’s most prominent figures participated in the slave trade, and how Rutgers benefited from the displacement of Native Americans from their lands.
WNYC’s David Furst spoke with Rutgers history professor Deborah Gray White, who chairs the Committee on Enslaved and Disenfranchised Populations in Rutgers History, which undertook the work of writing the book.
A sweeping new report reveals ties to slavery and the displacement of the Native Americans at one of the country’s top colleges. The findings about 250-year-old Rutgers University were published in a new book, Scarlet and Black, Volume 1: Slavery and Dispossession in Rutgers History. It details the history of some of the institution’s founders, presidents and trustees as slave owners, anti-abolitionists and participants in slave trading. Rutgers is one of several colleges and universities across the country now grappling with their historical ties to slavery, including Georgetown, Yale and Harvard. For more, we speak with Marisa Fuentes, director of research for the team that produced Scarlet and Black. She is an associate professor of women’s and gender studies and history at Rutgers.
Members of the Rutgers University–New Brunswick Community:
A year ago, I wrote to all of you announcing that the university would embark on an exploration of its early history, specifically examining to what extent our early trustees and benefactors were involved in slavery, how Rutgers came to inhabit land that once belonged to local Native American tribes, and how our institution may have benefited from these realities. To achieve a fuller understanding of this aspect of our early history, I created the Committee on Enslaved and Disenfranchised Populations in Rutgers History, which has been chaired by Board of Governors Distinguished Professor of History Deborah Gray White and composed of faculty, students, and staff.
This afternoon, Professor White and her committee made their findings public. Their report is contained in the book Scarlet and Black, Volume 1: Slavery and Dispossession in Rutgers History, which has been published by the Rutgers University Press. The book reveals an untold history of those lost in the pages of our history and brings to the fore the fact that some of the institution’s founders were slave owners, and illuminates the displacement of the Native Americans who once occupied college land. Their major findings include:
The discovery of Will, a slave who helped lay the foundation of Old Queens. Student researchers meticulously transcribed the documents they found, including a receipt book for the building of Old Queens, which now houses my office, the president’s office, and other administrative departments. In one of its first few pages, the receipt book reveals payments to local New Brunswick doctor Jacob Dunham “for the labor of his negro.’’ The slave’s identity would have been likely lost to history if Dunham had not kept detailed records of people who owed him money, which were preserved in the Rutgers archives.
The revelation that abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth and her parents were enslaved by the family of Rutgers’ first president Jacob Hardenbergh. Jacob’s father, Colonel Johannes Hardenbergh, a founding trustee of Queen’s College, owned Truth’s parents at the time of her birth.
The story of the Lenni Lenape Indians who were mostly displaced from New Jersey decades before the university’s founding, as well as those few who still lived in Central Jersey at the time the school was created, and whose young people were sent to an Indian boarding school in Connecticut rather than being welcomed at Queen’s College. Scarlet and Black also explores how the university benefited from the Morrill Act of 1862—the federal program that funded schools for the study of agriculture and the mechanical arts through the sale of Indian land out west.
Many of the truths reported in this work are complicated and uncomfortable, and there will be much discussion about how the university moves forward with this new knowledge. The committee has made several recommendations to me on how to make the best use of this new history.
My goal from the beginning of this historical exploration was that we would know truly the university we love dearly. This record provides us with a fuller knowing of the truth, but it also magnifies the stark differences between who we were at our founding and who we are today.
Queen’s College in 1766 was a reflection of higher education in the Colonial era: a place for male students from wealthy families, affiliated with a religious denomination, and funded by those who could afford to donate—many of whom had the means because of a connection to slavery. Rutgers University in 2016 could not be much more different from its ancestor. Today we are an institution of innumerable, and embraced, differences—a place where race, socioeconomic status, political thought, and values converge. This convergence is our greatest strength and the result of the path we charted, and then followed, out of the Colonial era.
I offer my thanks to Professor White and the committee for their tireless efforts. Their work has brought us some painful facts and, in so doing, has helped us to know Rutgers better.
Richard L. Edwards, Ph.D. Chancellor, Rutgers University–New Brunswick
On November 18, 2016, the Committee on Enslaved and Disenfranchised Populations in Rutgers History presented its findings to the university community at an event held at the College Avenue Student Center. The event was livestreamed by Rutgers iTV Studio, and you can view the recording below:
Message from Chancellor Edwards about the event:
A year ago, I wrote to all of you announcing that the university would embark on an exploration of its early history, specifically examining to what extent our early trustees and benefactors were involved in slavery, how Rutgers came to inhabit land that once belonged to local Native American tribes and how our institution may have benefited from these realities. To achieve a fuller understanding of this aspect of our early history, I created the Committee on Enslaved and Disenfranchised Populations in Rutgers History, which has been chaired by Board of Governors Distinguished Professor of History Deborah Gray White and composed of faculty, students and staff.
I am pleased to announce that Professor White and her committee have delivered on my charge and will present their findings in an event entitled “Scarlet and Black” that will take place on Friday, November 18 from 4 to 6 p.m., at the College Avenue Student Center Multipurpose Room. A reception will follow in the adjacent Fireside Lounge. Please register for the event by emailing email@example.com.
The committee’s work has been published by the Rutgers University Press in a book, Scarlet and Black, Volume 1: Slavery and Dispossession in Rutgers History. The book is co-edited by Professor White and Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and History Marisa Fuentes, and major contributors include undergraduate and graduate students, as well as university faculty and staff. The work roughly spans the 100 years from the founding of Queen’s College in 1766 to the designation of Rutgers College as a Land-Grant institution in 1862.
It is my sincere hope that you will join me on Friday for this important event, one that continues our pursuit of knowledge and a fuller understanding of the university we hold so dear.
Richard L. Edwards, Chancellor Rutgers University–New Brunswick
This article by Andrea Alexander was featured in Rutgers Today on November 18, 2016:
Scarlet and Black: Slavery and Dispossession in Rutgers History Brings University’s Untold Story Out of the Shadows
Rutgers University released the findings of eight months of research that reveal an untold history of some of the institution’s founders as slave owners and the displacement of the Native Americans who once occupied land that was later transferred to the college.
The work, contained in the book Scarlet and Black, Volume 1: Slavery and Dispossession in Rutgers History,brings out of the shadows the story of Will, a slave who laid the foundation of Old Queens. The research, which spans the mid-18th through mid-19th centuries, also reveals that abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth and her parents were owned by the family of Rutgers’ first president Jacob Hardenbergh.
The project was the result of an initiative by Rutgers University-New Brunswick Chancellor Richard L. Edwards. In the fall of 2015, Edwards appointed the Committee on Enslaved and Disenfranchised Populations in Rutgers History, which grew out of a meeting with a group of students concerned about improving the racial and cultural climate on campus.
“This work shows that we are not afraid to look at ourselves and our early history,” Edwards said. “We are a large public university that is one of the most diverse in the country and we think we need to understand our history and not be ashamed of it, but to be able to face it in a forthright way.”
“Like many other universities whose origins predate the United States Constitution and the founding of our country, the committee has explored aspects of our history that are difficult and complex and I applaud them for it,” said Rutgers University President Robert L. Barchi. “Their findings provide a fuller understanding of the institution’s early days, and by doing so have drawn a contrast between the Colonial-era Queen’s College of 1766 and the Rutgers–New Brunswick of 2016, which is one of the most diverse and inclusive major public research universities in the country.”
Rutgers joins other Colonial-era colleges in confronting its past, including Georgetown, Yale, Brown and Harvard. The committee worked to create a fuller picture of Rutgers’ history as the university celebrated its 250th anniversary and reflected on a familiar story: the founding by leaders of the Dutch Reformed Church, the role of benefactor Col. Henry Rutgers and the university’s identity as a land grant institution.
Deborah Gray White, a Board of Governors distinguished professor of history and chair of the Committee on Enslaved and Disenfranchised Populations in Rutgers History, said she would like different people to take away different lessons from their work.
“I want our African-American students to be proud of Will and to understand that their ancestry helped build the university,’’ she said. “I want New Jerseyans and Americans to understand that African Americans were integral to this nation even though we came here in chains, and we helped build America.
“This is not a way to tear down the university or diminish it, but it is a way to celebrate it and go forward,’’ White said.
Scarlet and Black puts that history in a new context by bringing into the light the founders’ connections to slavery and the story of how the university benefited from the displacement of Native Americans.
“It is often the case that the accepted history of an institution only explains part of its true history, but we know there are many threads to explore ,’’ Edwards said. “Some of our founders were heavily involved with Dutch Reformed Church and prominent members of the community – there were many facets to these figures. But among these facets was their involvement in slavery and the slave economy.”
Their names are emblazoned on academic buildings and surrounding public streets and are indelible in Rutgers’ identity. Founder Philip Livingston, who was a slave trader and slave owner; the first instructor Frederick Frelinghuysen, who owned slaves and whose family was deeply connected to the beginning of Rutgers; and trustees Col. John Neilson and Philip French are just a few whose connection to slavery is brought to light in the book. The university’s namesake Henry Rutgers was a slaveholder who, like several of the founders, became active in the American Colonization Society – an organization that advocated for resettling freed slaves in Africa.
The story of Rutgers’ ties to slavery wasn’t deeply hidden. The students who met with Edwards pointed to Craig Steven Wilder’s book Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, which makes reference to some of Rutgers’ founding families.
A team of faculty, graduate students and undergraduates sifted through records in Rutgers Libraries Special Collections and University Archives, the Sage Library at the New Brunswick Theological Seminary and traveled to the state archives in Trenton and the National Archives in Washington, D.C., to piece together the forgotten threads of Rutgers’ founding. Students delved through the wills, speeches, journals and property records of Rutgers founders and early trustees. They read through manumission records – the documents slave owners filed to grant freedom to the enslaved – analyzed newspapers ads for the sale of slaves and, in rare instances, had slave narratives to provide missing voices in Rutgers’ history.
All the records left behind were in colonial script adding to students’ challenge. They meticulously transcribed the documents they found, including a receipt book for the building of Old Queens, which now houses the president’s office and other administrative departments at Rutgers.
In one of its first few pages, the receipt book reveals payments to local New Brunswick doctor Jacob Dunham “for the labor of his negro.” The slave’s identity would have been likely lost to history if Dunham had not kept detailed records of people who owed him money, which were preserved in the Rutgers archives. One of the report’s recommendations includes placing a plaque at Old Queens to commemorate Will’s story.
“Not many people know this history,” said Marisa Fuentes, an associate professor in the departments of Women’s and Gender Studies and History and co-editor of Scarlet and Black.
“Walking through Old Queens and knowing who built the building, you think about all the bodies, the ghosts, who linger in that space that we haven’t ever heard about. It is the power of knowledge that transforms the space for you.”
As Edwards learned about the extent of the research and information uncovered, he realized the need for a permanent record of the work. In a little over a year’s time, the committee produced the book that includes seven chapters examining two threads of Rutgers’ history: the university’s ties to Native American land and deep connection to slavery.
The book tells the story of the Lenni Lenape Indians who were mostly displaced from New Jersey decades before the university’s founding, as well as those few who still lived in Central Jersey at the time the school was created, and whose young people were sent to an Indian boarding school in Connecticut rather than being welcomed at Queen’s College during its first decade. Scarlet and Black also explores how Rutgers – like all land grant universities – benefitted from the Morrill Act of 1862 – the federal program that funded schools for the study of agriculture and the mechanical arts through the sale of Indian land out west.
The work examining Rutgers history is expected to continue. Edwards referred to Scarlet and Black as the first volume and is creating a post-doctoral position charged with examining the experiences of African Americans and Native Americans at the university through the 20th century.
Placing historical markers around campus that commemorate people such as Will
Establish Rutgers physical and virtual tours which incorporate the material of Scarlet and Black
Establish retention scholarships to increase the graduation rates of “at risk” students.
Continue the research of Scarlet and Black
Consider naming some of the new buildings after contemporary, or historically, prominent African Americans and Native Americans; consider renaming one building.
The university will review and then respond to the committee’s recommendations.
“I am proud of the institution for taking charge, doing the project and making a pledge that this is important,” said Beatrice Adams, a graduate student who studies African-American history and history of the American South and assisted with the research for Scarlet and Black.
“I think this report speaks volumes that this doesn’t have to be something administrators and professors are doing begrudgingly, but that administrators and professors are doing this because they think it’s something important to be said,’’ Adams said.
Message from Chancellor Richard L. Edwards to the Rutgers community:
November 10, 2015
Rutgers University begins today the yearlong celebrations that will culminate next year in the 250th anniversary of the University’s founding in 1766 in New Brunswick. Throughout the next twelve months, special events and programs will examine and celebrate the University’s revolutionary pursuit of teaching, research and service.
As some in the Rutgers community have pointed out in recent weeks, we must acknowledge that our history also includes some facts 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 slave holders. Given our history as a colonial college, these are facts not unique to Rutgers, but it is time that we begin to recognize the role that disadvantaged populations such as African Americans and Native tribes played in the University’s development.
I am therefore announcing the formation of a committee to study enslaved and disenfranchised populations in Rutgers history. This committee will be charged with examining the role that the people of these disadvantaged groups played in the founding and development of Rutgers University, and with making recommendations to me on how the University can best acknowledge their influence on our history. The committee will be composed of faculty, staff and student members.
The committee may, for example, recommend the installation of historical markers to commemorate the contributions of Native Americans and African Americans, as well as the establishment of symposia, lectures, talks, and teach-ins to address the historical context.
Wrestling with such issues in our history is not unique to Rutgers. Brown University, for instance, founded just two years before Rutgers, formed a similar committee which was 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 report the Brown committee issued was extensive and honest and I will ask our committee for the same vigorous pursuit of the truth.
In my 11 years at Rutgers-New Brunswick, I have become a fierce supporter and champion of this incredible institution; I am proud of it like none other. But to truly praise Rutgers, we must honestly know it; and to do that, we must gain a fuller understanding of its early history. I look forward to reading the committee’s report and recommendations.
Richard L. Edwards, Ph.D. Chancellor, Rutgers University–New Brunswick