Columbia University and Slavery

Thanks to my blogging colleague Pat Young, I’ve come across this article. It tells us about a report prepared by Professor Eric Foner on Columbia University’s connection to the institution of slavery. “The report, to be released by the university on Tuesday as part of a new website, offers no dramatic revelations akin to that of the sale of 272 slaves in 1838 that helped keep Georgetown University afloat and that has raised a contentious debate about reparations today. But it illuminates the many ways that the institution of human bondage seeped into the financial, intellectual and social life of the university, and of the North as a whole. ‘People still associate slavery with the South, but it was also a Northern phenomenon,’ Eric Foner, the Columbia historian who wrote the report, said in an interview. ‘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.’ ”

According to the article, “The Columbia report had its origins in 2013, when Mr. [Lee] Bollinger [President of Columbia University] read about Craig Steven Wilder’s book ‘Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery and the Troubled History of America’s Universities.’ ” We learn, “While the story the report tells is complex, the bottom line is blunt. ‘From the outset,’ it declares, ‘slavery was intertwined with the life of the college.’ The university, while it does not itself appear to have owned slaves, both benefited from slavery-related fortunes and actively helped increase them. A 1779 audit by Augustus Van Horne, the college’s treasurer (and a slave owner), showed that the endowment often lent money to alumni and other prominent New Yorkers at below-market rates, thus ‘helping subsidize the mercantile and other business activities of men who profited from slavery.’ New York passed a gradual-abolition law in 1799, but some people connected with King’s, the report notes, continued to own slaves. Benjamin Moore, its president, owned two in 1810, according to the census.”

You can access the preliminary report by Professor Foner here. The school also constructed a website to cover the issue. You can see it here.

A couple videos are also available:

Finally, there are student-created exhibits for the project, which you can access here.

As we can see, there’s a complete interpretive structure the university put together, providing us as complete a picture as we can have at this time. They did a wonderful job with this.


  1. Pat Young · · Reply

    Glad to see this here.

  2. bob carey · · Reply

    It is actually refreshing to see an organization face its past, warts and all.
    As far as I know there was no pressing demand for Columbia to make these facts public. The University should be commended.

    1. I agree, Bob.

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