Yale apologizes for ties to slavery in new report, pledges list of actions

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Alongside the release of history professor David Blight’s book on “Yale and Slavery: A History” on Friday, the University formally apologized for the role slavery played in the institution and its early leaders’ lives. In response, Yale has announced a set of actions, some of which were first announced in the previous two years, to acknowledge the school’s ties to the institution of slavery.

The statue of Theodore Dwight Woolsey is pictured in Old Campus on the Yale University campus in New Haven, Conn., on Sunday, April 10, 2022.

On Friday, University President Peter Salovey and Joshua Bekenstein ’80, senior trustee of the Yale Corporation, issued a formal apology and a set of actions in response to Yale’s ties to slavery. 

The announcement came alongside the release of a book titled “Yale and Slavery: A History,” which is the culmination of the findings made by the Yale and Slavery Working Group. The group, composed of faculty, students, researchers and New Haven residents and led by David Blight, a professor of history and African American studies, was formed in 2020 under Salovey’s direction. 

The book was released in its entirety online along with key findings which are explored on the project’s site

Yale is not alone in revisiting its past ties to slavery. In April 2022, Harvard committed $100 million to redress its ties to slavery concurrent with the release of the university’s own report on the matter. 

In their announcement, Salovey and Bekenstein not only framed the project as a recognition of the University’s role in and association with the institution of slavery, but it also formally apologized for the ways that Yale’s leaders participated in slavery, adding that the findings from the group have “propelled” the University toward actions to address the continued effects of enslavement today. 

Steven Rome ’20 conducted research for the project as his first post-graduate job, after having Blight as his senior thesis advisor. Rome emphasized that the findings are just the start of a larger inquiry into the historical influence of institutions like Yale.

“This history has always been there and often, right in front of our eyes and to be able to be a small part of the work to bring that to life, I think was long overdue,” Rome said. “This is obviously meant to be just the beginning and we should be continuing to think deeply about the impact of choices that institutions are making and the way we respond with that history very present in our minds.”

Blight’s research 

According to the email announcement, the group’s research uncovered the role that enslaved individuals played in constructing Yale’s buildings or in the lives of “prominent leaders who made gifts to Yale.”

The announcement continues by stating that although no evidence was found that Yale University owned enslaved people, many of Yale’s Puritan founders and early leaders did own slaves — who were mostly Black but also of Indigenous descent.

“We started with the effective liquidation of Native peoples in Connecticut … but also that encounter between the English Puritans and Native peoples,” Blight told the News. “And then in the midst of that, some ministers met down the road and decided to create this little Collegiate school.”

The book also details a failed proposal to construct what would have been America’s first Black college — in New Haven. The effort, which the research found to be a joint effort between prominent Yale community members and New Haven leaders and citizens, was quashed after then-New Haven Mayor and Yale graduate Dennis Kimberly, class of 1812, held a meeting that was “whites-only” at which 700 people voted in opposition of the plan. 

Blight said that although the initial plan for the book was to cover this history into the 1930s, “the book got too long.”

Yet, concluding the book in 1915 with the unveiling of the Civil War memorial — located between the Schwarzman Center and Woolsey Hall — was a “perfect ending,” he said. This is so, he added, because the memorial, which honors the lives of soldiers on both sides of the Civil War without mentioning slavery, showcases the apathetic view Yale took toward slavery in the early twentieth century. 

“This is a case where the archives were not silent; there was so much material, we couldn’t even begin to use it all,” Blight said. “We decided to end the book with 1915 and the unveiling of that war memorial …. because it wasn’t the end of racial issues at Yale by any means, but it was the end of concern over slavery directly, or a lack of concern about it.”

To further showcase the findings of the YSWG, the University opened a free exhibition in the New Haven Museum highlighting key findings included in the book. Yale is also providing copies of the book to New Haven public libraries and high schools and updating campus tours to address key findings. A new app will offer self-guided tours with 19 points of interest to help visitors explore the University’s ties to slavery.

On-campus changes 

Per the announcement, Yale will continue working to ensure that its physical campus reflects “a more complete view of the university’s history,” consistent with the research findings.

“The most important consequences of the revelation of this history is our desire to play a role in lifting our entire community,” Salovey said.

The University’s Committee for Art Representing Enslavement, launched in June, will work with campus and New Haven community members to commission works of art that address Yale’s ties to and the legacy of slavery. 

Among CARE’s tasks will also be to make recommendations for new art in Connecticut Hall — Yale and New Haven’s oldest extant building which will be renovated to become the new home of the Yale Chaplaincy — to better reflect the building’s history with slavery. Among the research findings is that free and enslaved Black men devoted over 27 percent of the hours to the construction of Connecticut Hall, despite constituting only 3 percent of the local population.

Additionally, a physical display was recently installed near the Civil War Memorial located in the Schwarzman Center between Commons and Woolsey Hall to inform visitors of the memorial’s history.

“No one uttered a word of what the Civil War had been fought about, with the exception of a discussion of states’ rights,” Blight wrote on Feb. 16 of the memorial’s 1915 dedication in The Atlantic. “Instead, the ultimate memorial, in its content and form, served as an institutional Yankee apology for Reconstruction … Perhaps the Yale men needed to convince themselves that if they could make history itself calm and unifying on walls, on floors, and in marble, they could do the same with their university and their country.”

In September, the University honored the late Rev. James W.C. Pennington, the first Black student known to study at what is now the Yale Divinity School, and Rev. Alexander Crummell, who also attended the Yale Theological Seminary, with honorary master’s degrees. The posthumous degree conferral followed years of student and alumni advocacy, since at least 2014.

Educational programs, economic growth in New Haven

The announcement lists seven responses aimed at expanding educational access and opportunities for teaching and research and two for promoting inclusive economic growth in New Haven. Not all of the actions are new, such as increased support for New Haven Promise, K-12 outreach through Yale’s Pathways to Science program and the formation of the Pennington Fellowship, both referenced in Salovey’s announcement.

In January 2022, the University increased its financial contribution by one million dollars annually to the New Haven Promise, a college scholarship program that helps New Haven public school students pay for college. In December 2022, Salovey announced the Pennington Fellowship, a four-year, $20,000 scholarship for approximately ten to twelve New Haven public high school seniors attending some of the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities — including Hampton University, Morehouse College and Spelman College.

“We’ve not been holding back so while the research has been done, we have announced certain responses to what we were learning as we went,” Salovey said. “I had thought it would be wrong to simply delay things that would be good for Yale and for the New Haven community simply because the book wasn’t finished yet.”

Among Yale’s other planned actions are those to address the shortage of teachers in New Haven through a residency fellowship program in collaboration with New Haven Public Schools, New Haven Promise and Southern Connecticut State University that will fully fund a master’s in teaching degree for about 100 aspiring teachers. In exchange, the teachers must commit to working in the New Haven public school system for at least three years. 

Two weeks before the 2023-2024 academic year began for New Haven public schools, the school district found it had 84 classroom teachers positions still open.

“Ultimately, we hope in over the next five years to put 100 new teachers in the New Haven public schools and that number is not an accident,” Salovey told the News. 

Per the announcement, Yale also plans to launch a four-year teacher’s institute in the summer of 2025 that will help K-12 teachers throughout New England to meet state mandates for incorporating Black and Indigenous history into their curricula. 

The announcement also references other educational programs including the Access to Law School program which guides local New Haven students from underrepresented groups in law through the law school application process. 

Moreover, the announcement details a “recently signed ten-year letter of intent” for the Dixwell Plaza space, which is a collaboration between Yale and the Connecticut Community and Community Revitalization Program, a local program that seeks to offer opportunities for New Haven’s underserved residents.

“What Yale is going to do is we have offered to be a major tenant in the Dixwell Plaza,” Salovey said. “And so the letter that’s being referred to will ultimately be a lease, and we will lease space there providing a flow of revenue to ConCORP as they look for other tenants … and an example I hope to others that might inspire them to join us in setting up shop in Dixwell Plaza.”

Who was involved?

Salovey said that he approached Blight for the project because he thought him to be the “perfect historian” for conducting Yale’s own history with slavery. Blight said that he initially intended for these findings to be finalized in a report. However, upon accepting the project, Blight told Salovey that he would release the findings in a narrative history, not a report — something, Blight told the News in September, that students, alumni and the general public would actually read.

“It is essentially the instincts of historians: we like chronology, we like details, we like evidence,” Blight said. “Historical material imposes its own order on you as the writer, and so does the research.”

The book is principally authored by Blight but was also authored by Michael Morand, director of community engagement at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, and Hope McGrath, lead researcher of the Yale and Slavery Research Group. 

Blight told the News that student researchers were “crucial” to the research for the book “from the very beginning.” He added that while the student and professional researchers were paid by the President’s Office, the faculty involved were not.

​​“Some of our first student researchers only worked for a couple of months because they do what students do: they graduate, they leave, they get jobs, but some of them stayed on the project for quite a while,” he said.

Charles Warner, a New Havener, is a member of the Yale and Slavery Working Group and serves on the Board of Directors of the Amistad Committee which honors and preserves African and American history in Connecticut. Warner said that he first became involved with Blight’s research after the professors approached the Amistad group and invited them to join his project.

Warner emphasized the need, throughout the project, to understand slavery as a human issue, adding that the project was of particular meaning to him because he had the opportunity to share information the Black community of New Haven has “held dear and treasured” for so long and highlight “unsung heroes.” 

“It’s important when you’re discussing an issue, like the institution of slavery that we always remember that while there’s so much academic work around it, that this is a story of living, breathing people,” Warner said. 

What comes next?

Kimberly Goff-Crews, vice president and secretary for university life, told the News that she will chair a new committee that will host conversations with student leaders and New Haven residents. She said it will inform next steps for engaging with the Yale and Slavery Research Project’s findings.

“There are a lot of ways in which people are going to be able to engage with material,” Goff-Crews said.

Salovey will be stepping down from his role this June. The search for his successor publicly launched when he announced he would be stepping down in August.

However, he said that he anticipates his successor will pick up where he leaves off on this work.

“A big theme in the search for my successor is continuing the course we’re on and that includes the slavery research project,” Salovey told the News. “The idea is a next president who can provide a vision for 10 to 15 years from now that builds on what we’ve been trying to do over the last decade, and I fully expect that will include both our commitment to a diverse campus in all the meanings of that term, as well as in continuing to educate and lead around the legacy of slavery.”

For the University’s 300th anniversary in 2001, a group of graduate students issued an independent report on Yale’s connections to slavery, which Salovey acknowledged in his address at an event announcing the book on Yale and slavery.

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