The work, contained in the book Scarlet and Black, Volume 1: Slavery and Dispossession in Rutgers History, brings out of the shadows the story of Will, a slave who laid the foundation of Old Queens. The research, which spans the mid-18th through mid-19th centuries, also reveals that abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth and her parents were owned by the family of Rutgers’ first president Jacob Hardenbergh.
The project was the result of an initiative by Rutgers University-New Brunswick Chancellor Richard L. Edwards. In the fall of 2015, Edwards appointed the Committee on Enslaved and Disenfranchised Populations in Rutgers History, which grew out of a meeting with a group of students concerned about improving the racial and cultural climate on campus.
“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.”
“Like many other universities whose origins predate the United States Constitution and the founding of our country, the committee has explored aspects of our history that are difficult and complex and I applaud them for it,” said Rutgers University President Robert L. Barchi. “Their findings provide a fuller understanding of the institution’s early days, and by doing so have drawn a contrast between the Colonial-era Queen’s College of 1766 and the Rutgers–New Brunswick of 2016, which is one of the most diverse and inclusive major public research universities in the country.”
Rutgers joins other Colonial-era colleges in confronting its past, including Georgetown, Yale, Brown and Harvard. The committee worked to create a fuller picture of Rutgers’ history as the university celebrated its 250th anniversary and reflected on a familiar story: the founding by leaders of the Dutch Reformed Church, the role of benefactor Col. Henry Rutgers and the university’s identity as a land grant institution.
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 she would like different people to take away different lessons from their work.
“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.
“This is not a way to tear down the university or diminish it, but it is a way to celebrate it and go forward,’’ White said.
Scarlet and Black puts that history in a new context by bringing into the light the founders’ connections to slavery and the story of how the university benefited from the displacement of Native Americans.
“It is often the case that the accepted history of an institution only explains part of its true history, but we know there are many threads to explore ,’’ Edwards said. “Some of our founders were heavily involved with Dutch Reformed Church and prominent members of the community – there were many facets to these figures. But among these facets was their involvement in slavery and the slave economy.”
Their names are emblazoned on academic buildings and surrounding public streets and are indelible in Rutgers’ identity. Founder Philip Livingston, who was a slave trader and slave owner; the first instructor Frederick Frelinghuysen, who owned slaves and whose family was deeply connected to the beginning of Rutgers; and trustees Col. John Neilson and Philip French are just a few whose connection to slavery is brought to light in the book. The university’s namesake Henry Rutgers was a slaveholder who, like several of the founders, became active in the American Colonization Society – an organization that advocated for resettling freed slaves in Africa.
The story of Rutgers’ ties to slavery wasn’t deeply hidden. The students who met with Edwards pointed to Craig Steven Wilder’s book Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, which makes reference to some of Rutgers’ founding families.
A team of faculty, graduate students and undergraduates sifted through records in Rutgers Libraries Special Collections and University Archives, the Sage Library at the New Brunswick Theological Seminary and traveled to the state archives in Trenton and the National Archives in Washington, D.C., to piece together the forgotten threads of Rutgers’ founding. Students delved through the wills, speeches, journals and property records of Rutgers founders and early trustees. They read through manumission records – the documents slave owners filed to grant freedom to the enslaved – analyzed newspapers ads for the sale of slaves and, in rare instances, had slave narratives to provide missing voices in Rutgers’ history.
All the records left behind were in colonial script adding to students’ challenge. They meticulously transcribed the documents they found, including a receipt book for the building of Old Queens, which now houses the president’s office and other administrative departments at Rutgers.In one of its first few pages, the receipt book reveals payments to local New Brunswick doctor Jacob Dunham “for the labor of his negro.” The slave’s identity would have been likely lost to history if Dunham had not kept detailed records of people who owed him money, which were preserved in the Rutgers archives. One of the report’s recommendations includes placing a plaque at Old Queens to commemorate Will’s story.
“Not many people know this history,” said Marisa Fuentes, an associate professor in the departments of Women’s and Gender Studies and History and co-editor of Scarlet and Black.
“Walking through Old Queens and knowing who built the building, you think about all the bodies, the ghosts, who linger in that space that we haven’t ever heard about. It is the power of knowledge that transforms the space for you.”
As Edwards learned about the extent of the research and information uncovered, he realized the need for a permanent record of the work. In a little over a year’s time, the committee produced the book that includes seven chapters examining two threads of Rutgers’ history: the university’s ties to Native American land and deep connection to slavery.
The book tells the story of the Lenni Lenape Indians who were mostly displaced from New Jersey decades before the university’s founding, as well as those few who still lived in Central Jersey at the time the school was created, and whose young people were sent to an Indian boarding school in Connecticut rather than being welcomed at Queen’s College during its first decade. Scarlet and Black also explores how Rutgers – like all land grant universities – benefitted from the Morrill Act of 1862 – the federal program that funded schools for the study of agriculture and the mechanical arts through the sale of Indian land out west.
The work examining Rutgers history is expected to continue. Edwards referred to Scarlet and Black as the first volume and is creating a post-doctoral position charged with examining the experiences of African Americans and Native Americans at the university through the 20th century.
Recommendations made by the committee include:
- Placing historical markers around campus that commemorate people such as Will
- Establish Rutgers physical and virtual tours which incorporate the material of Scarlet and Black
- Establish retention scholarships to increase the graduation rates of “at risk” students.
- Continue the research of Scarlet and Black
- Consider naming some of the new buildings after contemporary, or historically, prominent African Americans and Native Americans; consider renaming one building.
The full list of recommendations can be found at scarletandblack.rutgers.edu. The university will review and then respond to the committee’s recommendations.
“I am proud of the institution for taking charge, doing the project and making a pledge that this is important,” said Beatrice Adams, a graduate student who studies African-American history and history of the American South and assisted with the research for Scarlet and Black.
“I think this report speaks volumes that this doesn't have to be something administrators and professors are doing begrudgingly, but that administrators and professors are doing this because they think it’s something important to be said,’’ Adams said.