1. King's College and Slavery

The fifth college founded in Britain’s North American colonies, King’s College, Columbia’s direct predecessor, opened its doors in July 1754 on a beautiful site in downtown New York City with a view of New York harbor, New Jersey, and Long Island. Not far away, at Wall and Pearl Streets, stood the municipal slave market. But more than geographic proximity linked King’s with slavery. One small indication of the connection appeared in the May 12, 1755 issue of the New-York Post-Boy or Weekly Gazette. The newspaper published an account of the swearing-in ceremony for the college governors, who took oaths of allegiance to the crown administered by Daniel Horsmanden, a justice of the colony’s Supreme Court. The same page carried an advertisement for the sale of “two likely Negro Boys and a Girl,” at a shop opposite Beekman’s Slip, a wharf at present-day Fulton Street. Horsmanden, who had presided over the sensational trials of alleged slave conspirators in 1741, was a college governor by virtue of his judicial position. The Beekman family was among the wealthiest members of New York’s mercantile elite. Although they conducted most of their commerce with Great Britain, they owned slaves and occasionally traded them. Henry Beekman, a slaveowner, was among the governors who took the oath in 1755. Gerard Beekman, a King’s graduate in 1766, owned nine slaves in 1790. Nine Beekmans attended King’s and Columbia between 1766 and 1889.[i]

New-York Gazette, 1755
Excerpt from the New-York Gazette, 12 May 1755, giving an account of the swearing in of King's College governors.
Advertisement, New-York Gazette, 1755
Advertisement for the sale of slaves from the New-York Gazette, 12 May 1755

From the outset, slavery was intertwined with the life of the college.  Of the ten men who served as presidents of King’s and Columbia between 1754 and the end of the Civil War, at least half owned slaves at one point in their lives.  So did the first four treasurers.  Samuel Johnson, an Anglican minister and King’s’ first president, serving from 1754 to 1763, was a well-known theologian and philosopher.  In Elementa Philosophica, published in 1752, Johnson described slavery as “a most wretched and abject condition,” but like many other writers of the era he used the word metaphorically, to describe succumbing to “any vicious habit,” such as drink or irreligion.  As to actually existing slavery, Johnson criticized the Atlantic slave trade but bought and sold slaves, who worked in his household.  In July 1755, soon after the College opened, and already the owner of one slave, Johnson asked Joseph Haynes, a leading New York merchant and one of King’s College’s governors, to help him acquire another.  It is unclear whether the transaction took place; that November, Johnson was still hoping to purchase a domestic slave.  Since President Johnson lived in the college building, it is likely that his slaves were also present.  While president of King’s, Johnson helped his son, William Samuel Johnson, who would later serve as Columbia’s president from 1787 to 1800, to purchase his own “wench,” as female slaves were commonly called.  In 1767, four years after leaving office, Johnson sold a slave, Jenny, and took another “wench upon trial.”  His family “did not like her,” so Johnson settled on another slave, Robin, who “does with the best good will twice the kitchen work Jenny did.”[ii]

Samuel Johnson
Samuel Johnson, the first president of King's College and a slaveholder

That slavery, from the outset, was a significant feature of the life of King’s College should not occasion surprise. King’s and Columbia have always been powerfully affected by the city around them and slavery had been a presence since the earliest settlement of New Amsterdam. In the eighteenth century, New York, became an important trading center in Britain’s slave-based New World empire and the city’s unfree population steadily expanded. No social stigma attached to the buying and selling of slaves. Slave auctions took place at many venues in the city, including wharves owned by major merchants, who imported entire shipments from the Caribbean and, beginning in the 1740s, directly from Africa. Lesser traders imported small numbers of slaves along with other goods. Advertisements for the sale of slaves and seeking the capture of slaves who had run away appeared regularly in the city’s newspapers. The export of foodstuffs, livestock, and lumber to the West Indies via New York City and the import and sale of goods produced by slaves in the Caribbean, notably sugar, rum, and molasses, formed the “linchpin” of the colony’s mercantile economy.[iii]

On the eve of the War of Independence, nearly 3,000 of the city’s population of 19,000 consisted of slaves and some 20,000 slaves lived within fifty miles of Manhattan island, the largest concentration of unfree laborers north of the Mason-Dixon line.  Ownership of slaves was widespread.  Most worked as domestic laborers, on the docks, in artisan shops, or on small farms in the city’s rural hinterland.  At the apex of provincial society stood families like the Van Cortlandts, Schuylers, Philipses, and Livingstons, who made fortunes in trade and owned great estates in the Hudson River valley where both slave and free labor worked in the fields, mills, and in river commerce.  This wealthy elite intermarried, featured prominently in municipal and provincial government, and played a major role in the founding and survival of King’s College.[iv]

From the beginning, as the careful research of Craig S. Wilder has shown, King’s was a “merchants’ college.” Over half the 59 persons who served as governors of King’s were merchants, many of them also landowners. Around 90 of the 226 students who attended King’s before the Revolution were the sons of merchants, more than at any other college in British North America. The students also included sons of shopkeepers, ship captains, and artisans, but most, in the words of one faculty member, were “the sons of gentlemen of independent fortunes.” And prominent New Yorkers, much of whose wealth derived either from slave trading or from commerce in goods produced by slaves, gave crucial financial support. Their influence seeped into the curriculum. One problem assigned by Robert Harpur, Professor of Mathematics in the 1760s, asked students to calculate the profits of three investors in a slave trading voyage “to Guinea.”[v]

John Parke Custis
John Parke Custis, George Washington's stepson and a King's student, brought a slave, Joe with him to the College.

Since the college building could only accommodate a handful of students, most lived at home or in rented accommodations near King’s.  An exception was George Washington’s stepson John Custis, whom the general brought to New York to enroll at the college in May 1773.  Washington chose King’s because young Custis had been spoiled by his mother, Martha, and lacked self-discipline; he would not devote himself to his studies at William and Mary, the Virginia college where the sons of the colony’s rich gentry often engaged in gambling and womanizing with little fear of punishment.  Washington also wanted to create some distance between Custis and Nellie Calvert, with whom his stepson had fallen in love.  Accompanying Custis was a slave, Joe.  Unlike Samuel Johnson, Myles Cooper, who had assumed the presidency of King’s in 1763, did not own slaves, preferring to employ white indentured servants.  (One absconded in 1764, taking with him, according to a notice Cooper placed in the press, a forged document so that “he might pass for a free man,” along with silver and gold coins, clothing with the president’s initials, and “two silver buckles.”)   Cooper indulged Custis, setting him up in a suite of rooms and, as  Custis wrote home, establishing a “distinction ... between me and the other students.”  Joe lived in one of the rooms and prepared breakfast each morning; in the evenings Custis dined with Cooper and the professors.   Custis also kept a horse at college and went for rides in the countryside twice a week.  He did not last long at King’s.  By September 1773, against Washington’s wishes but with the approval of his mother, he returned home to marry.  In four months at King’s he had managed to spend 300 pounds.  There is no record as to whether any of the other students who lived at King’s brought slaves to attend to them. Those who lived at home, however, grew up in households where domestic slavery was common, so they were well- acquainted with the institution.[vi]   

[i]. Milton H. Thomas, “The King’s College Building, with Some Notes on Its Later Tenants,” New-York Historical Society Quarterly, 39 (January 1955), 23-24; Philip L. White, The Beekmans of New York in Politics and Commerce 1647-1877 (New York, 1956), 307-11, 329; Philip L. White, ed., The Beekman Mercantile Papers 1746-1799 (3 vols: New York, 1956), 1: 64, 73, 94-95; 2: 550-54.

[ii]. Herbert Schneider and Carol Schneider, ed., Samuel Johnson, President of King’s College: His Career and Writings (4 vols.: New York, 1929), 1: 219, 228, 240, 264, 269, 402-03, 429, 505.

[iii]. Serena R. Zabin, Dangerous Economies: Status and Commerce in Imperial New York (Philadelphia, 2011), 5-7; James Lydon, “New York and the Slave Trade, 1700-1774,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3 ser., 35 (April 1978), 375-394; Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (New York, 1999), 120-29; Virginia D. Harrington, The New York Merchant on the Eve of the Revolution (New York, 1935), 165-66, 193; Cathy Matson, Merchants and Empire: Trading in Colonial New York (Baltimore, 1998), 183-87.

[iv]. Thelma W. Foote, Black and White Manhattan: The History of Racial Formation in New York City (New York, 2004), 74-77; Vivienne L. Kruger, “Born to Run: The Slave Family in Early New York, 1626 to 1827" (Phd diss., Columbia University, 1985), 128-31; Frederick C. Jaher, The Urban Establishment (Urbana, 1982), 161-68; Harrington, New York Merchant, 11-12.

[v]. Craig S. Wilder, Ebony and Ivory, Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of American Universities (New York, 2013), 67; Robert A. McCaughey, Stand, Columbia: A History of Columbia University in the City of New York, 1754-2004 (New York, 2004), 40; Harrington, New York Merchant, 34; David C. Humphrey, From King’s College to Columbia 1746-1800 (New York, 1976), 89-97, 168.

[vi]. Trustees-Minutes-1784-1800, Folder, Box 27, Dwight Miner Papers, Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, Columbia University; Herbert B. Howe, “Colonel George Washington and King’s College,” Columbia University Quarterly, 24 (June 1932), 137-54; Wilder, Ebony and Ivy, 136; New-York Mercury, April 16, 1764; Humphrey, King’s College, 199, 204-05.