Researching Columbia’s Campus and Histories of Racism and Enslavement

A pilot project coordinated by the libraries is foregrounding the ways that campus spaces reflect Columbia’s ongoing legacy of white supremacy and racism

By Abigail Drach 

This spring, the Libraries are spearheading a pilot project to reimagine how campus spaces engage Columbia’s ongoing legacy of white supremacy and racism. In May, Thai Jones, Herbert H. Lehman Curator for American History at the RBML, along with Postdoctoral fellow Josh Morrison, and a team of student researchers, presented extensive research into slavery, segregation, and discrimination over the course of Columbia’s history. Their work will culminate in a series of educational displays in four residence halls: Jay, Furnald, Hartley, and 50 Haven Avenue (formerly Bard Hall). Moving forward, the project hopes to help generate broad conversations around a variety of steps to address these histories, including renaming buildings, developing historical programming, commissioning public artworks, and considering other forms of reparative justice. They have also launched a survey and hosted conversations to engage community members in this endeavor. Recently, Abigail Drach, a curatorial graduate assistant at Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, sat down with Thai Jones to learn more about this project.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Abigail Drach: Can you tell me a bit about the history of the Columbia and Slavery project and the work that it does?

Thai Jones: Sure. The Columbia and Slavery Project began in 2015 with a seminar taught by Eric Foner. This was Colombia’s first attempt to engage with the university’s implication in enslavement and in post-emancipation white supremacy and racism. What distinguishes Columbia from other campuses is that this has been a student-centered initiative. All of the work has been done by undergraduate and graduate students. And in my opinion, despite some of the significant findings that we have unearthed, by far the most important outcome of this has been the training of all of these cohorts of advanced historical researchers. We have students from all these years who are out there and many of them have pursued academic work, legal work in these fields. So it’s been an amazing teaching and learning experience. 

An early 20th century view of Hamilton Hall, Hartley and Livingston (now Wallach) Dormitories. (From Seymour B. Durst Old York Library Collection)

In parallel to that, there have been conversations about how the campus should think about its physical space—the names on buildings, the statues that are on campus. This has been inspired by controversies and conversations all around the country and all around the world: Princeton’s debate over Woodrow Wilson’s name on some buildings, Yale’s Calhoun College, University of North Carolina’s confederate monument. Columbia has had a few groups that have been talking about how to address these issues here on our own campus. And just this past spring, we have taken the first public and concrete step, which is to commission a group of students to research the history of these residence halls and to create a set of educational markers that will be placed around campus and that will begin to tell the stories.

AD: How has the Columbia University and Slavery project developed over time? Have there been any critical moments that have affected the urgency or focus of the research at all?

TJ: It’s interesting that the course itself has its own history. It’s been running for seven years now and the approach of the students has changed dramatically in that time. I wouldn’t say necessarily that there’s been a single turning point, like, for instance, the protests following George Floyd’s murder in 2020. The major turning points have sometimes been much more local; for instance, there was an incident on campus in 2019 when a Black student named Alexander McNab was assaulted by campus security, and that seemed to have at least as much of an impact on the class as these national and global questions. 

But the students’ approach to the class does map onto the conversations that are happening locally and globally. And each year has been incredibly different. At the end of each year, the students present a set of demands to President Bollinger and those demands have changed so dramatically over time and not totally predictably. Early on, students actually tended to oppose the idea of taking names off of the buildings in the feeling that if you took the name, say, “Havemeyer” off of the building, you would be erasing 100 years of the university’s association with the sugar industry’s use of enforced labor in slave states and the Caribbean and that would implicitly let the university off the hook. So those students thought that the name should stay but that there should be some historical information that explained the name. 

Later students have been more insistent that the names had to come down and that there was no way to contextualize them that would undo the harm that these names have perpetuated. One year the students’ first demand was that the names Columbia University and Barnard College should both be removed. 

AD: What should we take into consideration in redesigning how this history is represented on campus?

TJ: My feeling, which also derives from what I’ve heard from students, is that there’s a lot of skepticism about the notion that you can take down one statue of one person and put up a statue of another person and solve the problem. One thing about Columbia is that the people whose names are on these buildings are obscure and they’re complicated. With the exception of Jefferson, they’re not household names like Calhoun or Woodrow Wilson. So the first step is to get people talking about them. I would say what we want is a maximal conversation. We want as many possible voices as we can get to have that discussion and to plan what a memorial or a new set of names or statues or sculptures would look like. I don’t have an answer about what should go next. But I do have a sense that the best answer would be something that involves the most people’s voices.

One concrete idea that we’ve talked about that could come before putting up a permanent monument, which is certainly the ultimate goal here, is — in the interim — we could also have artists from Columbia and the broader Harlem and Morningside communities, as well as student groups, interacting with the statuary and the buildings that currently exist through temporary art installations in order to get the conversation moving. An art installation would be an excellent way to get people engaged with the architecture of campus and thinking about what should go next. 

AD: What really struck me about the research this group of students has been conducting is that alongside the history behind building names, there was also this attention to the neglected stories of students and workers who inhabited these buildings. What does bringing these two narratives together contribute to the conversation?

TJ: I feel like it would take sort of a Beautiful Mind style whiteboard with strings and photos to connect all of the different themes and dimensions and timelines at play here. Columbia has moved two times—this is the university’s third location, and all buildings here were built at the very end of the 19th or during the early 20th century. A few of them are named for important figures from the very early history of the of the institution and those people were all engaged with enslavement: Kent, Hamilton, Jay, Bard up at the Medical Campus, Johnson, whose name has come down off a building, and Livingston, whose name was on the residence hall now known as Wallach. And then there were buildings that were named after people who donated money, like the Havemeyer family, who in the 1890s actually donated several hundred thousand dollars to have a building named for them. And at that time, they owned Domino Sugar and were still involved in slavery and forced labor in the Caribbean in the sugar industry. Some buildings are also named after arms dealers and oil executives. So we have these different timelines.

H. Rap Brown speaking outside of Hamilton Hall
H. Rap Brown, a leader of SNCC, speaking at Hamilton Hall, in April 1968, in favor of the Black student protests at Columbia. (Photo by Lee T. Pearcy, ’69 CC)

But then within that you have things like Hamilton Hall, which was named for Alexander Hamilton, but then in the 1960s, Hamilton Hall was also the home to one of the most important Black student protests in American history. And so to change the name of Hamilton Hall would also impact the memory of what happened in the 60s and what students have done with these buildings. The question of a building’s name is really only a small part or part of a larger conversation.

There’s also this question of how these buildings have been used and who has used them and for what purposes. And then there are people such as the staff, like the maids whom Stella Kazibwe’s research has focused on, whose names are not on the buildings and whose work is almost always unnoticed or unmentioned. We wanted to get a cross section of those stories. We wanted to make sure that we have the 18th century story included alongside the story of white supremacy in the 20th century, such as the 1924 cross burning and the story of the maids, which is about staff and race and labor on campus.

AD: Why has the project chosen to focus on residence halls for its pilot initiative?

TJ: The name Bard was removed from a medical center residence hall in 2020. People who lived up there had found some research that one of the CU and Slavery students had done showing that Bard was an enslaver. And one of the things that the administration heard from that protest was that people feel especially strongly about the place where they live, as opposed to say, an academic building—a space where people inhabit should be the top priority. And so that is why we have identified these residence hall stories as the place to start. There was a sense that because these are people’s homes for this important part of their life, they have a special significance. 

AD: I think the idea of bringing learning and historical reckoning into the residence halls, which are otherwise non-academic spaces on campus, is really interesting.

TJ: And I think it feels very true to the mission of the library to make it our first priority to actually just make sure that anyone who wants to learn some of the history of these spaces has the opportunity to do so. As it currently stands, it’s basically impossible for anyone to know this history, because it’s just not accessible anywhere. You have to do the research yourself to learn it. But once people know it, it may raise some pressing questions for them. But the first step is to share the research that we’ve done as widely as possible, and to try and give people the opportunity to have the conversations that follow.

AD: How has Columbia’s location in New York City affected the university’s relationship to race and exploitation historically? How are you thinking about Columbia’s current gentrification in West Harlem with this work?

View of community members protesting at 115th Street
View of community members protesting at 115th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. (Photo by Lee T. Pearcy, ’69 CC)

TJ: In many ways, the defining geographical experience of Columbia in the 20th century was the fact that it arrived in upper Manhattan almost exactly contemporaneously with the Great Migration that brought thousands and thousands of African Americans to northern cities, and which made Harlem the most famous African American community in the world. It’s well known and well documented that Columbia has not always been the best neighbor to Harlem over the years and the archives are clear about this. There are documents in the archives that show that Columbia administrators were warily eyeing Harlem’s transformation into a Black community all the way back to the 1920s. And then the archives also show how activists and faculty and racialized students negotiated the relationship between the university and the neighboring communities throughout all that time. So I think that the relationship to Harlem needs to be central to what comes next.

Harlem is not mentioned once in the official Columbia website’s history of the school. Nor is the word slavery. The university’s main messaging about its own story still does not include these narratives even though we’ve been discussing and researching them for almost a decade. So I think that that needs to be a key part of what we do moving forward. 

And if we think about this as a research and teaching initiative, one thing that would be in line with our mission and what the libraries can do and do well, would be to work with community groups and students and invite them more fully into the archives. I would like to see the Columbia and Slavery Project be not just an internal seminar for Columbia and Barnard students, but actually a community project where neighboring groups are fully involved the research itself, before we even get to the question of reparations.

AD: How have you and the student researchers been thinking about reparations? Is that something that’s been in your demands to the administration in years past? 

TJ: Reparations are never very far from the conversation about universities and slavery. The topic has been in the background and often in the foreground from the very beginning of this work, which really began about 20 years ago now. Most famously at Georgetown researchers have now identified many thousands of descendants of a group of people who were sold by the owners of the university in the 1830s. And that sale, which was one of the largest slave sales in American history, allowed Georgetown to survive financially. So there was a direct link between the university’s survival and the sale of these people. And now, thanks to the work of researchers and students, thousands of those people’s descendants have been identified and they can make a very strong case for restorative and reparative justice from the university. At Columbia, we have yet to identify, specifically a descendant of a person enslaved by a university or college affiliate from the era of slavery. This is a top research priority. We currently have a list with more than 120 names of people enslaved by King’s College and Columbia affiliates, and recently have traced a family well into the 20th century whose ancestors were enslaved by Samuel Bard, the founder of the Columbia Medical School. So, we are getting closer, but we’re still hoping to actually identify specific descendants whose forebears were enslaved by King’s College and Columbia administrators. 

But that’s just a very specific and limited idea of what reparations means. Looking much more broadly and thinking about neighborhoods, and communities that have for decades and centuries suffered from the repercussions of enslavement and Jim Crow and institutional racism, you don’t have to go necessarily into the archives to find those specific descendants to start having a real conversation about what wealthy institutions, such as a major university, owes to its neighbors. On the one hand, we would love to try to do the type of genealogical work that would allow us to connect with people who are directly related to this history, but at the same time, that’s actually a narrow way to approach it and that we need to think about communities of people whose lives have been negatively impacted by institutions that have themselves profited from racism and enslavement.

AD: Can you just give me a sense of the next steps for this project? What’s next on the docket?

TJ: Over the summer we will be finalizing the research and installing digital markers. The plan is for there to be monitors in the dorms and then also at some central location that will have these stories that the students have been researching. Once that’s in place in the fall, the next step will be to do historical markers on all of the relevant buildings on campus. And in parallel to that, there will be conversations beginning about this idea of commemorative art, about building name changes, and commissioning a major work of public art someplace prominent on campus. These conversations will all be happening in parallel: at the university level, in the libraries, at the department level, among students, and at the community level with the surrounding neighborhoods. Over the course of the next several years we’ll be pursuing those conversations as broadly as possible.

For further information about the Columbia Slavery Project, you can visit its website or watch this recent presentation of student work

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Abigail Drach is a Columbia MA student in English and Comparative Literature with a particular interest in feminist and queer theory. She received her BA in Theater and Gender Studies from McGill University.