Institutions Built By Slave Labor, Rutgers Included

Institutions Built By Slave Labor, Rutgers Included

In the last week, student groups have pointed to the inequity and injustice that is a part of Rutgers University’s history. In the midst of a year-long celebration of its 250th anniversary, New Brunswick campus Chancellor Richard L. Edwards acknowledged that in those 250 years, Rutgers had committed previously unacknowledged injustices. In response to student activism committee will be formed to study the history of enslaved and disenfranchised people at Rutgers.

That committee is something our partner Muckgers advocated for in January of 2014 in an article titled “Slavery & Academia: A Troubled History of Rutgers University”. With their permission, we have republished the article in its entirety below. 

From left to right: Col. Henry Rutgers, John Henry Livingston, Abraham Hasbrouck, Jacob Hardenbergh (source: Wikimedia Commons)

The founding fathers were slaveholders. New Jersey was one of the three largest slaveholding states outside of the American South. Much of Rutgers history is built on a foundation of oppression and exploitation. It’s time we change the conversation.

As the 250th anniversary of the founding of Rutgers University approaches, the Rutgers Student Life organization decided to produce a video last year, starring the Rutgers Orientation kNight (RON), in an apparent attempt to “instill pride in our student body, giving a better sense of Rutgers’ historic past and its exciting future.” The video claims that RON will “give the students an opportunity to learn and appreciate the great things that make Rutgers such a worthy institution.” Among the University’s accomplishments and attractions, the video lists the University’ vast housing program, the historic Athenian society, student-led philanthropy events like Dance Marathon, student charity missions abroad, the growing athletics department, and more.

While the video is obviously well produced and ostensibly well-intentioned, RON certainly has a tendency to gloss over some of the other, more insidious aspects of Rutgers’ history. In light of his honest mistake, I thought it was important that we take a few minutes to reflect on some of the lesser known facts about the origins of Rutgers and the serious implications they have for what it means to be a Scarlet Knight.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

In order to do this, we should start by asking ourselves the following question: To what extent do some of our oldest institutions trace their eventual wealth and success back to their involvement in the American slave trade?

This is a discussion that we should be having as a region and as a nation. Brown University, for example, has been engaging in this discussion for over a decade. The consensus is that the nation’s oldest and most prestigious universities were formed and thrived as a direct result of their connections to and functions within the systems of chattel slavery, indentured servitude, and racial oppression in the United States.

Brown University president Ruth J. Simmons appointed a Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice in 2003 to study how the university has benefited from slavery. Over the course of the self-study, they discovered that the entire northeast region of the United States is heavily implicated in the core of the Atlantic slave trade activity.

I also spoke with Northwestern political science professor and former undergraduate vice chair of the Rutgers political science department, Professor Alvin Tillery:

At the core of the slave economy were the triangular trade routes between the Caribbean, New England, and the American South. While the vast majority of slaves were held below the Mason-Dixon line, the so-called ‘free states’ that emerged in the wake of the Revolutionary War held vast numbers of slaves for decades into the 19th century.

New Jersey, Professor Tillery explained, was one of the three largest slaveholding states outside of the South, along with Connecticut and New York. “Even those institutions who manumitted or eventually ceased all direct involvement in the slave trade,” he continued, “continued to profit from the fruits of that system and the oppression of its victims.”

So, in keeping with the spirit of the ongoing discussion at Brown and Northwestern Universities, among others, I decided to do some research to learn more about the hidden history of Rutgers University and the Atlantic slave trade.

The founding fathers of Rutgers University were slaveholders.

Many of the founding charter trustees of Rutgers University (formerly Queen’s College), along with scores of tutors and graduates, were either slave owners themselves or hailed from slaveholding families. Craig Steven Wilder writes in his book Ebony & Ivy: Race Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, “The charter trustees of Queen’s came from the most prominent slaveholding and slave trading families in the region, and they included Philip Livingston, Robert Livingston, Theodorus Van Wyck, Peter Schenck, and Abraham Hasbrouck.”

New Brunswick was located in the middle of “the Dutch slaveholding belt that stretched from Elizabethtown to Trenton.” When Queen’s College was originally chartered on November 10, 1766, “its founding president, Jacob Hardenbergh, and first tutor, Frederick Frelinghuysen, were slaveowners.” Several streets, along with a litany of campus buildings, monuments, and other historical tributes to their legacies scattered throughout the New Brunswick, Newark, and Camden campuses still bear their names.

Col. Henry Rutgers (Source: Rutgers University Libraries)

Henry Rutgers himself owned slaves, as did the rest of his family. In fact, after the 1741 slave revolt in New York City, a member of Henry’s family “had three of his slaves convicted of conspiracy—one was hanged, one burned, and one transported,” according to an article in the University archives. The article goes on to explain what happened to “John Hughson, the white man who allegedly incited the slaves,” who was executed and hung on public display “on the shoreline of the Rutgers [family] property.”

In his 1823 will, Henry Rutgers wrote, “It is my desire and will that my Negro wench slave named Hannah being superannuated, be supported out of my Estate.” Henry Rutgers “had a strong voice,” his great grand-niece, Mary recalled. “His orders to his negroes across the East River,” she continued, “could be heard by them.”

The school was forced to shut down for over a decade in 1795.

Near the end of the 18th century, Rutgers University found itself deep in financial turmoil and on the verge of closure. Rutgers President Jacob Hardenbergh, on the other hand, not only managed to survive the financial collapse of his school, but he appears to have flourished in spite of it. In fact, Hardenbergh was somehow able to afford buying a slave in 1793, just two years before the school closed. Later, during the final stages of the shutdown in 1795, he bought himself another slave, even while “the board suspended classes, released the faculty, sent the students home, and vacated the campus.”

“Human tissue was the currency of medical science.”

New York state began formally supplying medical colleges like the Rutgers Medical College in New York City with the cadavers of executed felons in 1789. The bodies were to be used “for student interaction and private instruction,” a demand which was easily met by a constant stream of fugitive slaves. Local newspapers even ran advertisements offering rewards for runaway slaves, including “the capture of the college trustee John Lawrence’s black teenager and her baby.”

Rutgers and the College of New Jersey (Princeton) helped to establish their own colony in West Africa.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Presbyterian Church hosted the New Jersey Colonization Society in 1824, which was founded and headed by trustees and faculty members at Rutgers and the College of New Jersey. Many schools and school officials sought to extend their influence and position within the context of the slave trade by creating what Wesleyan’s president Robert Fisk called, “a passage of civilization and salvation into the interior of that dark continent!” In order to accomplish this, many leading intellectuals at the time advocated the use of black people to support missions in Africa.

Justified on both religious and economic grounds, Africa became the target of many academics involved in colonization movements across the country. Captain Robert Field Stockton, for example, reportedly led an expedition “from Boston to the African coast during the spring of 1821″ on behalf of the New Jersey Colonization Society “to find a location for the colony.”

According to Wilder’s research, “the presidents and trustees of the College of New Jersey and Rutgers governed the state and local colonization movements” from the early 1820s and well into the Civil War. Faculty members from both Rutgers and the College of New Jersey “could be found at all levels of the state and local auxiliaries,” and Rutgers President John Henry Livingston was a director.

At the same time, students in Princeton and New Brunswick continued to exploit and rely on black slaves and servants throughout the entirety of the NJ colonization movement. Recent Rutgers graduates, for instance, “recalled with affection their encounters with ‘negro Sam,’ the assistant in Professor Joseph Henry’s laboratory, during the height of the colonization campaign.”

Professor Wilder’s book makes it clear that the “ubiquity and persistence of servitude on both sides of the college wall was not a mere consequence of the colonial academy’s location in the greater Atlantic economy.” In fact, according to Wilder, “Human slavery was the precondition for the rise of higher education in the Americas.”

Moving the discussion forward

In the end, the first-mover advantage held by our oldest institutions, in conjunction with their inextricable reliance on the institution of slavery, allowed them to stake out crucial ground in the early colonial and industrial American landscapes. In turn, that legacy has given them an unprecedented level of legitimacy – and, let’s be honest, financial success.

Why is it that we attach so much prestige to the idea of institutional longevity, especially since that advantage was only possible because of the herrenvolk system of oppression and genocide upon which it was built? More pointedly, why do we continue to celebrate the longevity of our institutions, despite the fact that the older they are, the more likely they are to have been involved in the perpetuation of systemic white privilege and racial hierarchy that are such fundamental aspects of our historical narrative?

As the University and the nation in general continue to move forward, we need to remind ourselves that the foundations of our most trusted and long-standing institutions are based almost entirely on the illegitimate theft of the freedom, dignity, and lives of people of color – not to mention their labor. By keeping this history fresh in our minds, we should be able to use it to frame conversations on how we can paint a better picture for the future.

At the same time, it is important to note that this discussion should not be limited to institutions of higher education. Professor Tillery agrees: “In terms of our public culture and our historical memory,” he explained, “I think the modern connection, for me, is that we should be having these conversations about all kinds of long-standing institutions in American society.”

This article was originally published on Muckgers and was written by co-founder Joe Amditis.
Featured image credit: Salon