The College Avenue Apartments in the heart of Rutgers’ historic New Brunswick campus on Wednesday were named for abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth, a former slave who was owned as a young girl by the family of Rutgers’ first president Jacob Hardenbergh.
The Rutgers Board of Governors approved the naming of the landmark 440-bed apartment building as the university moves forward to enact recommendations by the Committee on Enslaved and Disenfranchised Populations in Rutgers History – created to examine the institution’s ties to slavery and the displacement of Native Americans.
“We thought it was important to show the university is being responsive to this part of our history,’’ said Rutgers University-New Brunswick Chancellor Richard L. Edwards. “We acknowledge there are other aspects to our story and we want to have a more complete portrayal of our history.’’The board also voted to name the walkway from Old Queens to the Voorhees Mall as Will’s Way, in honor of a slave who laid the foundation of Rutgers’ iconic administration building and whose story was brought out of the shadows in the committee’s book Scarlet and Black, Volume 1: Slavery and Dispossession in Rutgers History.
The Kilmer Library on the Livingston Campus in Piscataway was also named for James Dickson Carr, Rutgers’ first African-American graduate who completed his degree in 1892, was a member of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society and went on to attend Columbia Law School.
Deborah Gray White, a Board of Governors distinguished professor of history and chair of the Committee on Enslaved and Disenfranchised Populations in Rutgers History, said the board’s action is an appropriate way to acknowledge that African Americans were a part of Rutgers since the university’s beginning.
‘’It is not a triumphant history when you say my people were slaves, but it is a triumphant history when you say my people had a hand in the building of this nation,’’ White said.
“And we are not trying to hide this fact, we are going to proclaim it,’’ she said. “Not only in the case of Will did we help build and lay foundations, but in the case of Sojourner Truth we helped make freedom ring. She was an abolitionist. She fought for women’s rights, she fought for black rights and she fought for inclusion.’’
The Scarlet and Black project was the result of an initiative by Edwards, who appointed the committee to research Rutgers’ past after meeting with students concerned about improving the racial and cultural climate on campus.
The action by the Board of Governors gives the names of Truth, Carr and Will equal prominence on campus alongside Rutgers’ founders who were revealed through Scarlet and Black to be slave owners and whose names are emblazoned on buildings and surrounding public streets.
Edwards said naming the new building on College Avenue the Sojourner Truth Apartments is particularly meaningful because the development serves as a focal point for the campus. The first floor of the apartment building houses The Yard, a retail area and public green space that draws people throughout the Rutgers community.
“It gives her legacy a degree of prominence that would be hard to match with another building,’’ Edwards said.
Naming the James Dickson Carr Library on the Livingston Campus is also a fitting tribute to Rutgers’ first African-American graduate who was a noted scholar, Edwards said.
“Having Mr. Carr’s name on a building that is a core part of academic life where students go to study and where research is conducted is an important way to recognize his accomplishments,’’ he said.
The move to name buildings for Carr and Truth without removing the founders’ names from Rutgers is a way for the university to embrace its full story without erasing the truth of its past, Edwards said.
“I think it would be a mistake to take away part of our history,’’ Edwards said. “You can’t deny that Jacob Hardenbergh was our first president and taking his name off a building doesn’t make it not so. But I think we can give a fuller picture of our history and show we are not sweeping it under the rug.’’
The university plans to install plaques at the apartments and the library to tell the stories of Truth and Carr and to put a marker along Will’s Way, said Antonio Calcado, executive vice president for strategic planning and operations at Rutgers.
The university also plans to install markers at the buildings named for the founders to share Rutgers' complete story.
“This is our history, this is our truth, a truth that we cannot change, but owning it provides an opportunity to reflect upon and acknowledge all who contributed to making us the great university that we are today,” Calcado said.
The university is moving forward with other recommendations from the Scarlet and Black researchers. Rutgers recently joined the consortium of Universities Studying Slavery, a group based out of the University of Virginia to address historical and contemporary issues of race and inequality in higher education and the legacy of slavery in modern America.
Edwards said his office has provided funding to the New Jersey Folk Festival, held as part of Rutgers Day in April, to include programs on the state’s Lenni Lenape Indians and other Native American tribes. His office is also funding a two-year post doctoral fellowship in the Department of History to continue the research and create a second volume examining Rutgers history on race relations up to the present day. Rutgers is also working to include the history brought to light through Scarlet and Black in campus tours, Edwards said.
“I created this committee so that we could deliver something that would have a lasting, positive impact on the university – not to come up with something that would end up on a shelf,’’ Edwards said. “We are committed to following through on the recommendations and not letting them languish or be forgotten.’’
– Andrea Alexander