Tag Archives: University Archives

A Narrative in the Documents: The Gibbs Affair

Interesting narratives that are interwoven into Columbia University’s history can unravel simply by creating an online inventory for a collection. Recently, a series of letters was discovered within the Columbia College Papers that elucidate past events involving administrative prejudice, academic politics, and the Civil War.

After James Renwick, Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy and Chemistry, retired from his professorship at Columbia College in 1853, Free Academy professor Oliver Wolcott Gibbs was nominated for the position in 1854. Gibbs, a Unitarian, faced the prejudice against the denomination that several Columbia College Trustees, unlike many New Yorkers at the time, held. Although there were some members of the Board of Trustees that supported Gibbs’ nomination the predominately Episcopalian board, which included six clergymen, chose to reject Gibbs based on his religious affiliation. The decision fueled bitterness amongst trustees and alumni that led to a postponement of centennial celebrations in what became known as the “Gibbs affair.”

One of the letters in this series of correspondence came from a special committee of the
United States Senate that was investigating whether or not Columbia’s Board of Trustees violated anti-discriminatory terms within the charter. The Senate committee asked a broad series of questions regarding the hiring practices of the Board of Trustees, one of which asked if the board has ever rejected a candidate “on account of his peculiar tenets in matters of religion?”.

Senate Questionnaire

The Board of Trustees invoked their Fifth Amendment rights for this question and the committee concluded that although individual board members may have violated charter’s terms, the Board of Trustees as a whole was not guilty.

Gibbs eventually became a distinguished researcher at Harvard following the affair, but the professor chosen instead of Gibbs, Richard Sears McCulloh, forged a very different reputation. On September 25, 1863, McCulloh submitted his letter of resignation to the Board of Trustees, stating “that one, born and reared a Southerner, prefers to cast his lot with that of the South.”

McCulloh Resignation Letter

McCulloh left New York for Richmond, Virginia where he became a consulting chemist for the Confederate Nitre and Mining Bureau.

The Board of Trustees initially acknowledged his resignation in correspondence with colleagues, but McCulloh’s decision to join the Confederacy prompted them to expel him from the faculty, as noted in the Board Minutes, rather than officially accepting the resignation. McCulloh went on to develop a lethal chemical gas for the Confederate Army, which was never used in combat. After his subsequent imprisonment he became a Professor of Mechanics and Thermodynamics at Washington College, where Robert E. Lee served as President, until 1878.

This rich story, spanning the course of a decade, was unearthed in a collection that holds countless narratives waiting to be told. An inventory of the Columbia College Papers will be made available online in the near future.

-Ian Post, Pratt SILS Intern

ONLINE EXHIBIT– “1968: Columbia in Crisis”

 

The occupation of five buildings in April 1968 marked a sea change in the relationships among Columbia University administration, its faculty, its student body, and its neighbors.  Featuring documents, photographs, and audio from the University Archives, 1968: Columbia in Crisis examines the causes, actions, and aftermath of a protest that captivated the campus, the nation, and the world.

This online exhibition is based upon a physical exhibition of the same name which was on display in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library from March 17 to August 1, 2008.

The Rare Book & Manuscript Library (RBML) is Columbia’s principal repository for primary source collections.  The range of collections in RBML span more than 4,000 years and comprise rare printed works, cylinder seals, cuneiform tablets, papyri, and Coptic ostraca; medieval and renaissance manuscripts; as well as art and realia.  Some 500,000 printed books and 14 miles of manuscripts, personal papers, and records form the core of the RBML holdings.  One can find literary manuscripts from the 14th century to the papers of authors Herman Wouk and Erica Jong.  Archives as varied as the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Random House, NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International-USA, and the archives of Columbia University are available for research.  The history of printing, graphic arts and the performing arts are strengths of RBML.

 

The Columbia University Archives preserves the institutional memory of Columbia University from its founding in 1754 to the present-day. Among its holdings are non-current official University records and a wide variety of other materials, including the records of student organizations, materials that pertain to alumni, publications, photographs, scrapbooks, and artifacts.* The University Archives’ holdings are non-circulating, may only be used in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library Reading Room, and are open for research and reference use to all members of the University community and the public.

 

*The University Archives does not collect records from the University’s Law School, Health Sciences campus, Earth Institute, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Nevis Laboratories, Barnard College, or Teachers College, although information about those divisions and affiliates may be found among the holdings of the University Archives.

Amelia Earhart’s Adventurous Side

Carrie E. Hintz
Archivist

Alright, so the images here are a bit fuzzy but what they show is a young Amelia Earhart (1897-1937) perched on top of the domed roof of Columbia’s Low Library.

Earhart-Image-2-2

Earhart attended Columbia University’s School of General Studies from 1919-1920 (and again, briefly, in the spring of 1925) intending to go on to medical school. Though discovering aviation shifted her career goals away from medicine, she did make full use of her time at Columbia to explore the campus.

In her memoir, The Fun of It, Earhart recalls: "I was familiar with all the forbidden underground passageways which connected the different buildings of the University.  I think I explored every nook and cranny possible. I have sat in the lap of the gilded statue which decorates the library steps, and I was probably the most frequent visitor on the top of the library dome. I mean the top".  (p. 22).

Earhart-Image-1-2 

 

These pictures, taken in 1920 by Earhart’s college friend Louise De Schweinitz (1898-1997) (later Louise De Schweinitz Darrow, MD), prove that she wasn’t lying about her illicit explorations of the campus.  These images show Earhart on the top of Low Library with Morningside Heights spread out below her.

Clearly, even before she took her first flight, Earhart was already exploring her adventurous side (and proving she didn’t have a fear of heights)!

 

Royal Connections…

Jocelyn K. Wilk
Public Services Archivist

This past March, I was asked to entertain a group of visitors from The Royal Oak Foundation – the American supporters of The National Trust of England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The National Trust is one of the world’s largest and most progressive conservation organizations.

These guests were on campus for an architectural walking tour and it was thought that they might find a visit to the University Archives an interesting way to end their day.  For their entertainment, I directed them to a University Archives exhibit (“Alma Mater: Origins”) on display in the RBML’s Chang Octagon as well as some historical items related to Columbia’s British royal visitors which I pulled together, just for them, in the University Archives reading room. I figured if anyone was going to be intrigued by these royal ties, it would be The Royal Oak visitors!

I decided to display items related to two events: the June 10, 1939 visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (better know today as the "Queen Mother”) and the Queen Mother’s honorary degree which was awarded to her on October 31, 1954 as part of Columbia University’s bicentennial celebrations. As I gathered up the usual array of photographs, arm bands, pins, programs, and invitations related to the 1939 event, I decided to also check the Trustee Minutes for 1939. I had never looked in them for anything related to this royal visit and I was very glad I decided to this time!

 In the April 3, 1939 minutes I found a transcription of a letter dated March 30, 1939 that was sent to President Nicholas Murray Butler from George T. Summerlin in the State Department’s Division of Protocol. In the middle of explaining the upcoming royal visit and all that would entail I saw a paragraph which, in light of the recent movie The King’s Speech, suddenly held much interest:

“For your confidential information, the King, on account of the impediment in his speech, should not be expected to make an address.  If any talking pictures are taken, the President suggests that you and the King move your lips but that the King should not speak.”

Before the movie came out this past winter I had never known about King George VI’s speech impediment and suddenly, right in front of my eyes, there was a direct reference to it sitting in the Columbia University Trustee minutes all this time!

Just goes to show, you never know what you’ll find in the archives until you start digging around.

 Queen Elizabeth, King Edward VI and President Nicholas Murray Butler

(left to right)  Queen Elizabeth, King George VI, and President Nicholas Murray Butler walking across the Low Library Plaza.