Yale University Acknowledges Its Role in Slavery

Yale University has issued an official apology in response to findings related to the school’s historical ties to slavery. The February 16 statement from Yale President Peter Salovey and Joshua Bekenstein, a senior board trustee for the Yale Corporation, follows a university investigation into its grim legacy, initially launched in 2020 amid nationwide Black Lives Matter protests. Decades ago, in 2001, a report by three graduate students for Yale’s tricentennial delved into the school’s residential colleges, eight of which were named after enslavers.

Led by Professor of History and African American Studies David Blight, a working group composed of students, faculty, researchers, and residents found that many of the university’s Puritan founders, early leaders, and other significant community members enslaved Black and Indigenous people — some of whom helped construct Connecticut Hall, the campus’s oldest building

The investigation also noted that White, male property owners in New Haven, many of whom were connected to the university, blocked a proposal to build a local Black college in 1831 that would have been the first such institution in the United States. In 1830, New Haven was home to almost 600 free Black people and four enslaved people (Connecticut did not formally abolish slavery until 1848). The plan for the college was nearly unanimously vetoed in an all-White meeting attended by approximately 700 people; only four voted in favor of the proposal.

Additionally, the working group found that Yale’s 1915 Civil War Memorial, located adjacent to the school’s multimillion Schwarzman Center on the ground floor of Memorial Hall, honors Yale soldiers who fought for both the Union and the Confederacy, yet makes no mention of slavery.

The university has published a list of initial steps aimed at contending with its legacy, including dispensing the investigation’s findings to local schools, libraries, and community groups; working with campus and New Haven residents to develop programming; and implementing a four-year teaching program for New England educators focusing on regional Black and Indigenous history in 2025. The school also said it will host listening sessions with Yale and New Haven community members in the coming weeks.

Yale University did not answer Hyperallergic’s questions about a timeline for its initiatives or whether the university has received any feedback from its community members so far regarding the statement.

In recent years, academic institutions have come under increased scrutiny for their historical roles in slavery and colonialism. In August, the Smithsonian Institution apologized for the museums’ history of collecting human brains from deceased Indigenous and Black individuals without consent. Harvard University continues to hold on to daguerreotypes of the enslaved ancestors of Tamara Lanier, a Black woman fighting for ownership of the photos held in the Peabody Museum. A January 2023 report by ProPublica revealed that more than 110,000 Native American, Native Hawaiian, and Alaska Native ancestral remains were still in the collections of US museums and universities; according to the database, Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History still holds the remains of at least 300 Indigenous Americans.  

The findings of Yale’s research were presented last week during a live-streamed event and are further explored in a book titled Yale and Slavery: A History, available as a PDF, and on the Yale and Slavery Research Project website. An exhibition at the New Haven Museum titled Shining Light on Truth: New Haven, Yale, and Slavery is on view through this summer. 

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