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Yale Apologizes for Its Connections to Slavery

But race remained a highly charged topic at Yale, which has had an often contentious relationship with the local Black community. And the university’s record was thrown into the national spotlight with the debate over renaming Calhoun College, an undergraduate residential facility named after John C. Calhoun, the antebellum South Carolina senator and architect of Southern secession. (In 2017, it was renamed in honor of Grace Murray Hopper, a pioneering computer scientist who became a rear admiral in the United States Navy.)

Still, Blight, a leading scholar of the Civil War and the author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Frederick Douglass, said that he was “stunned” when Salovey called him in September 2020, asking him to take on the project.

“This didn’t come from any yearning on the faculty,” he said. “It came from the president himself.”

Blight said he had agreed as long as he and the team he assembled could write a “real narrative history,” rather than just a report. He said that neither he nor any of the other Yale faculty members who contributed were paid. “We wanted to avoid the appearance that we were profiting off of Yale’s story,” he said.

They were given free rein in their research, and the university made no efforts to control what they wrote, he said.

The book, whose main findings are also presented on a website, begins with the early history of Connecticut, where in the 18th century roughly 50 percent of the economy was connected to trade with the West Indies, which depended on slavery.

One of the most fascinating parts, Blight said, was the antebellum period, when Yale students and faculty were on both sides of the slavery issue, and the university — which in the 20th century has tended to emphasize its abolitionist history — pursued a policy of “aggressive moderation,” as Blight calls it. “They just didn’t want to take a side until the 1850s,” he said.

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