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Columbia University Releases Report On Its Historical Ties To Slavery

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Several American universities have been wrestling with their ties to slavery. The latest is Columbia. The school just put out a report today detailing how deeply rooted this history is. It stretches back to the earliest days at Columbia when it was known as King's College back in the 1700s. Historian Eric Foner led this research project and joins us now. Welcome to the program.

ERIC FONER: Yes, nice to talk to you.

SHAPIRO: I think many people associate slavery with the South. Describe how this University in New York benefited from the institution.

FONER: Well, of course you're right. Most people do not think about slavery when they think about New York City, but slavery was an important institution in colonial New York. King's College was founded in 1754. Most of the donors and early trustees were major merchants in the city. And where did their money come from? They either were dealing with the West Indies, with the products of slave labor - sugar, molasses, et cetera - or some of them were actually involved in the African slave trade, bringing slaves from Africa to the West Indies or sometimes to New York itself.

Most of the early presidents, treasurers, trustees, et cetera owned slaves, usually just one or two who worked in their household. This was not a plantation region. And probably most of the early students came from slave-holding families. So slavery was pretty deeply embedded in the life and culture of Colombia because it was part of New York City, and slavery was very embedded in New York City in the colonial era.

SHAPIRO: How did this first come to light?

FONER: I mean the first to really investigate this was Craig Wilder, a professor at MIT. He published "Ebony And Ivy," dealing with the colonial era, which had a good deal of information about Columbia as well as many other institutions from back then. And this really was the catalyst for us to say, well, we need to really investigate much more fully Columbia's historic connection to slavery as well as a connection to anti-slavery movements and also push the story well into the 19th century.

You know, the research was done by myself. It was done by students in a seminar that I led, 11 of them doing research papers. And so eventually that all produced this report that was released yesterday and today.

SHAPIRO: Could you tell us a particular story you uncovered that sticks with you?

FONER: Oh, there are a number. I mean there was the story of George Washington's stepson Custis who came to study just for a few months at King's College in the early 1770s, and he brought a slave along with him. And there were letters - we tell the story where the slave cooked his breakfast for him and sort of looked after him while he was here. So that's a slave living right in the college building working for one of the students.

But on the other hand, I'm also impressed by the fact that John Jay II, who was the grandson of the founding father John Jay, who was a graduate of Columbia, was a major abolitionist in New York City in the 1830s, '40s, '50s. He represented fugitive slaves in court. He fought against the racial exclusion policies of the Episcopal Church here.

So, you know, Columbia did have a little foothold in anti-slavery movements. But actually, most people connected with Columbia were not very outspoken about slavery even right up to The Civil War.

SHAPIRO: What questions are you still pursuing as a researcher here?

FONER: Well, this project is ongoing. This research seminar that I ran is being conducted this term by another professor called Jacoby, and there'll be more research done. I'm anxious to extend this past The Civil War. We now end with The Civil War, but I'd like to know about Columbia's racial policies in the late 19th century and into the 20th century.

What was being taught in the classrooms here about race in American society? Why was it that Columbia lagged behind many of our peer institutions in admitting black students? The first undergraduate - black undergraduate - did not graduate from Columbia College until 1906, and that's way after places like Dartmouth or Harvard or other, you know, Ivy League institutions. It's a little unclear to me why it was such an exclusionary policy for so long. So, you know, there are many, many aspects of this, which I think will continue to be investigated.

SHAPIRO: Professor Foner, thanks very much.

FONER: Pleasure to talk to you.

SHAPIRO: Eric Foner is a historian at Columbia University who researched the school's history with slavery.

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