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Columbia University Reveals Details Of Its Ties With Slavery

The Alma Mater statue on the Columbia University campus in New York City. The university has released an initial report on its historical ties to slavery in America.
Mario Tama
Getty Images
The Alma Mater statue on the Columbia University campus in New York City. The university has released an initial report on its historical ties to slavery in America.

In 1755, the board of governors of a new college was sworn into office in Manhattan. King's College, as it was called, was not far from the municipal slave market at Wall and Pearl streets in New York City.

The man presiding over the ceremony was Daniel Horsmanden, a colonial supreme court justice who had previously presided over the trial of alleged slave conspirators. One of the men he swore in as a governor of the new college was Henry Beekman, whose merchant family owned and traded slaves.

A local newspaper account of the ceremony carried on the same page an advertisement for the sale of "two likely Negro Boys and a Girl."

Thus began the entwined histories of slavery in America and the institution that would become Columbia University.

Now, some of the details of that history are publicly available. Columbia is the latest major university to publish a preliminary report and put up a website with details about its historical ties to slavery.

"From the outset, slavery was intertwined with the life of the college," the preliminary report by Columbia professor Eric Foner states. "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."

Most of the original donors to the institution "had a connection to slavery either via ownership or trade."

At least five other elite educational institutions have released reports of their own on the topic. Brown University, , , and Yale University all have websites with information about how the institutions historically benefited from slavery in America.

"The academy never stood apart from American slavery," Craig Steven Wilder wrote in a 2013 book on the topic. "In fact, it stood beside church and state as the third pillar of a civilization built on bondage."

Columbia's website, , includes information about historical figures, including people who were enslaved and lived at the university in its early days.

One such man, referred to in historical documents as Joe, was owned by George Washington's stepson John Parke Custis. Joe was a personal servant for the young man throughout his school years, as the report explains:

"Joe frequently traveled between Custis's school in Caroline County, Virginia, and Washington's estate at Mount Vernon, a distance of about seventy-five miles, toting books, letters, medicines, and other items. In effect, Joe often served as a private messenger between Custis and his guardian.


"Joe accompanied Custis to King's [College], where he lived in Custis's suite of rooms in the college. Joe prepared breakfast each morning, while in the evening, Custis dined with the faculty. In a letter to his mother, Martha Washington, Custis described his living situation at King's: 'I have a large parlour with two Studyes or closets, each large enough to contain a bed, trunk and couple of chairs, one I sleep in, & the other Joe calls his, my chamber and parlour are paper'd with a cheap tho very pretty Paper, the other is painted... I generally get up about Six or a little after, dress myself & go to chappel, by the time that Prayers are over Joe has me a little Breakfast to which I sit down very contented... .' "

Custis left college after four months, and the report says that "a letter from Custis to Washington in 1774 indicates that Joe accompanied him and continued to serve as a family messenger. After 1774, however, Joe disappears from the historical record, so it remains unknown if he ever gained his freedom."

The research for the project was led by Foner, a professional historian, but much of the archival information comes from the research of current students at the university who wrote research papers as part of a class offered each year by the history department and titled, "Columbia University and Slavery."

One research project by a student named Jordan Brewington found "28 King's College and Columbia students and affiliates submitted 43 advertisements advertising fugitives or selling enslaved human beings."

Another project by student Elana Sulakshana documented racist scientific beliefs that were taught to medical students at the university throughout the 19th century.

One of the challenges for archival researchers is that Columbia's campus has moved twice in the 250 years since it was founded and that many records were lost in each move.

In particular, the report notes, student and faculty found it was difficult to find "records of the experiences of individual enslaved people who were owned by affiliates of King's and Columbia College."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.