Rutgers can’t erase its racist, slave-exploiting past — so it’s celebrating it
NEW BRUNSWICK — The state’s largest public university is coming to terms with its ugly ties to slavery. But some officials don’t think that’s anything to feel ashamed about.
Rutgers University has released a new book revealing the extent to which the school’s founders benefited from slavery and the exploitation of Native Americans.
“Scarlet and Black, Volume 1: Slavery and Dispossession in Rutgers History” is the result of months of research after Rutgers New Brunswick Chancellor Richard L. Edwards last year appointed the Committee on Enslaved and Disenfranchised Populations in Rutgers History.
Among other revelations, it tells the story of Will, a slave owned by a New Brunswick doctor, who helped lay the foundation for Old Queens, the university’s oldest building on the historic campus of Queens College. And the university’s namesake, Col. Henry Rutgers, was a slaveholder who advocated for resettling freed slaves in Africa.
The committee’s chairwoman, history professor Deborah Gray White, said the research isn't meant to put a damper on the university's 250th anniversary celebrations.
"This is not a way to tear down the university or diminish it, but it is a way to celebrate it and go forward," said White.
“I want our African-American students to be proud of Will and to understand that their ancestry helped build the university," she said. “I want New Jerseyans and Americans to understand that African Americans were integral to this nation even though we came here in chains, and we helped build America.”
The committee submitted more than a dozen recommendations on how the university could learn from its history, including placing historical markers on the campus, establish scholarships to help retain "at risk" students, help fund the New Jersey Native American folk festival, and make a diversity course a core curriculum requirement.
Rutgers isn’t the only university in the country where students and officials have recently taken to confronting the past. Earlier this year at another New Jersey educational institution, trustees decided to keep the name of Woodrow Wilson on Princeton University’s buildings and programs after a months-long campus-wide discussion about the former American and university president’s racism.
“This work shows that we are not afraid to look at ourselves and our early history,” Edwards said. “We are a large public university that is one of the most diverse in the country and we think we need to understand our history and not be ashamed of it, but to be able to face it in a forthright way.”
Among the findings in the book:
- Abolitionist and women’s rights advocate Sojourner Truth and her parents were owned by the family of Rutgers’ first president, Jacob Hardenbergh.
- Founder Philip Livingston was a slave trader and slave owner.
- Rutgers’ first instructor Frederick Frelinghuysen, a Revolutionary War soldier who became a U.S. senator and whose family had deep ties to the college’s founding, owned slaves.
- Rutgers, a land-grant institute, benefited from the sale of western Native American land.
- The children of the Lenni Lenape who remained in Central Jersey were excluded from Queens College and sent to a boarding school designed to forcibly integrate Native Americans.
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Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-438-1015 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.