Eric Foner

Columbia University Examines Ties to Slavery

Columbia University released a report this week detailing its historical ties to slavery. The school becomes yet another that in recent years has made this discovery.


Eric Foner, a history professor at the university, wrote the findings in “Columbia and Slavery: A Preliminary Report.” While the report did not make any findings that the university itself had owned slaves, many leaders at Columbia, which was originally called King’s College, had personal ties to slavery.

“From the outset, slavery was intertwined with the life of the college,” Foner writes. “Of the ten men who served as presidents of King’s and Columbia between 1754 and the end of the Civil War, at least half owned slaves at one point in their lives. So did the first four treasurers.”

One former president, William A. Duer, put an ad in a paper selling a 21-year-old “negro wench” in 1814. He became president of the Colonization Society of the City of New York in 1840. In the Society’s first publication, signers (Duer included) pointed to the unjust treatment of Blacks in America but feared the repercussions of “a numerous free population of a distinct and inferior race.”

Other leaders and trustees at the school also supported colonization. One trustee, Rev. Jonathan Wainwright, was a “member for life” of the American Colonization Society (ACS). Although ACS members allegedly supported abolishing slavery, true abolitionists overtime began to question what the ACS’s real goal was, “claiming its true intent was to drain off the most educated of the free black population which often challenged slavery and thus preserve the institution.”

Wainwright, for his part, preached that “abolition without colonization would lead to ‘the immediate destruction of the white population,'” according to the report.

“People still associate slavery with the South, but it was also a Northern phenomenon,” Foner said. “This is a very, very neglected piece of our own institution’s history, and of New York City’s history, that deserves to be better known.”

Other schools have chosen to take action after their own ties to slavery were discovered. John J. DeGioia, president of Georgetown University, in 2016 announced unprecedented steps to make amends for slavery, after discovering that the university in 1838 sold 272 enslaved people to pay off an operations debt. DeGioia’s steps included issuing a formal apology to the descendants of its former slaves and offering descendants preferred admissions. And the Harvard Corporation, one of the university’s governing boards, agreed to retire the Harvard University Law School’s (HLS) existing seal that has ties to a family of slave owners.

Columbia’s historical connection to slavery has been the topic of research since at least 2002, The New York Times reported, when Craig Steven Wilder was doing research for a book about colleges with ties to slavery. Wilder, a history professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in 2013 published “Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities.”

The Times also reported that Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University, was inspired after reading Wilder’s book. Bollinger, Foner and Wilder discussed creating a seminar dedicated to exploring the topic further; the seminar became the inspiration for Foner’s report.

Unlike other universities, Bollinger has not yet stated any action Columbia may take in response to the discovery.

“Every institution should know its history, the bad and the good,” Bollinger said. “It’s hard to grasp just how profoundly our contemporary society is still affected by what has happened over the past two or three centuries.”

Foner’s report also explains how commonplace buying, selling and owning slaves it was during that time, writing, “No social stigma [was] attached to the buying and selling of slaves.”

Although there were no social repercussions at the time, the impacts of slavery remain an integral part of American history that cannot be ignored, according to Foner.

“I hope all of this will make people realize how central slavery has been to ourhistory the North as well as the South,” he said. “Too many people seem to see slavery as kind of a footnote, an aberration they don’t quite grasp how absolutely central it was to the settlement of these colonies and the economic development of the U.S. And the racial configurations created by slavery still haunt us to this day.”

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