Post-1865: Columbia and the Legacy of Slavery

by Mary T. Freeman

Why did we continue the research beyond emancipation in 1865?

The Columbia and Slavery project began by focusing on the period from the founding of Columbia in 1754 through emancipation in the United States in 1865. In the past year, student research has extended into the twentieth century to examine the legacies of slavery and racism on campus. The research has exposed a longstanding pattern of silence and ambivalence regarding slavery and racism at Columbia. Long after the Civil War, students, faculty, and administrators continued to envision the school as an exclusively white, male, and Protestant space. Even as black students matriculated at the university in the early twentieth century, formed organizations, and participated in campus life, Columbia’s archives generally have not preserved the details of their individual stories. Researchers have begun the important process of examining how racism and the legacies of slavery continued to shape the university long after emancipation. As of now, the research extends through about 1930, but future work may continue to probe beyond this date.

Highlights from student research

 As research from the 2015 and 2016 seminars has demonstrated, Columbia’s history was closely tied to slavery from its founding as King’s College in 1754. Slavery was present everywhere in New York at that time. New York was one of the major slaveholding states in the North, and the city was a major port for goods produced by slave labor elsewhere. Early students, faculty, and administrators would have encountered slaves every day, and many of them owned slaves themselves. Even after New York State abolished slavery in 1827, Columbia affiliates were reluctant to embrace abolitionism as a universal policy. Many supported political compromise on the issue of slavery in the hopes of soothing tensions between the free Northern states and the slaveholding South. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, most Columbians rallied to support the Union, though only a few students served in the Union army. Students in the 2017 seminar focused on researching beyond the conclusion of the Civil War and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery in 1865. Their research shows how Columbia’s history remained intimately linked to the legacy of slavery well into the twentieth century.

Economic ties

View of Havemeyer Hall

After emancipation occurred in the United States, slavery persisted in other parts of the Americas. In Cuba, slavery was not abolished until 1886, and in Brazil, slavery continued until 1888. Therefore, U.S. businesses that dealt with goods produced in these areas continued to have economic ties to slavery long after 1865. For example, the Havemeyer family, owners of the American Sugar Refining Company that produced the brand Domino Sugar, imported massive amounts of sugar produced by slave labor in Cuba. The Havemeyers, supported by Columbia chemistry professor Charles Frederick Chandler, aimed to gain a total monopoly over the sugar business in the United States. Sugar refiners like the Havemeyers established a legal and moral distinction between the production of sugar through exploitative labor practices overseas and the refining of sugar in domestic factories. In making this distinction, the refiners were able to distance themselves from slavery and present themselves as modern and scientific men of industry.


In addition to professors like Chandler who supported industrial interests, other members of Columbia’s faculty and administration perpetuated racist ideas in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. John W. Burgess and William A. Dunning were two prominent Columbia political scientists and historians who created influential scholarship on slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. Burgess was Dunning’s graduate mentor, and Dunning himself went on to train numerous students who took up academic positions across the nation. Together, the “Dunning School” popularized an image of Reconstruction that relied on white supremacist ideology and portrayed former slaves as unequipped for full citizenship. This view of history helped to justify Jim-Crow-era disfranchisement and segregation to white Americans. Burgess and Dunning’s ideas remained popular through the mid-twentieth century and still linger today, even though academic historians have entirely rejected them.

John W. Burgess
William A. Dunning

Columbia was also home to debate about race science and eugenics. Several of the most famous race scientists and eugenicists of the early twentieth century, including Madison Grant, author of The Passing of the Great Race, had ties to Columbia. George S. Huntington, a professor of comparative anatomy, collected skeletons and preserved body parts that he displayed in a museum on the campus of the College of Physicians and Surgeons. These scholars created pseudoscientific hierarchies of races based on various anatomical characteristics. Their work rested on racist assumptions that scientists have long-since disproven. Columbia anthropology professor Franz Boas worked to dispute these findings in the early twentieth century. He demonstrated that factors such as skull and brain size had no bearing on intelligence.

Administration and the student body

Between the 1880s and the 1920s, Columbia faculty and administrators participated in lively debates about the composition of the student body and the meaning of a Columbia education. This era saw the founding of Barnard College, which provided for the education of women. Though several administrators, including presidents Frederick A.P. Barnard and Seth Low, approved of a policy of coeducation, the opposition of others, including John W. Burgess, led to the creation of Barnard as separate institution. Debates also took place about the racial and ethnic makeup of the student body. Dean Herbert Hawkes spearheaded the creation of the Core Curriculum in the aftermath of World War I as part of an effort to ensure a homogeneity of Protestant and patriotic values among Columbia undergraduates. Though black students began attending Columbia in small numbers, they found few advocates among faculty or administrators.

Barnard College, 1908

Campus life

The 2017 students who researched student life and organizations in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century discovered a pattern of indifference among Columbia’s white students towards discussions about race and racism on campus and in the United States. This indifference shaded into expressions of outright racism, especially during the 1910s and 20s as the Ku Klux Klan experienced a revival in the North after the release of D.W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation. The film romanticized antebellum white Southern culture, denigrated the results of emancipation and Reconstruction, and celebrated the Klan. Columbia students responded enthusiastically to the film when it was first released in 1915, though their support declined after NAACP activists linked it to incidents of KKK violence in New York City. The records of student publications and organizations suggest how racism was an everyday fact of life for most white students at Columbia. For example, the Glee Club, a popular singing group on campus, regularly performed songs that ridiculed African Americans through the use of racist slurs and dialect. Audiences responded enthusiastically to these songs with hearty applause and calls for encores.

Birth of a Nation Cartoon

What was life like for early black students at Columbia?

As the research has moved into the twentieth century to study the legacy of slavery at Columbia, students continue to encounter silences, omissions, and erasures in the archive. Though we know that black students began to enroll at Columbia by the 1920s, the archives lack detailed records of them, their experiences, or activities. It is not until the 1960s that there are substantial records of black undergraduate students’ organizations. It is an ongoing project for further research to continue pushing against this archival silence.

Student research has begun to uncover the work of early African American graduate students, who at first came to Columbia in greater numbers than undergraduates. For instance, George Edmund Haynes was the first black student to receive a doctoral degree at Columbia, in sociology. Haynes studied the working conditions of African Americans living in New York City. During his time as a graduate student, Haynes’s work with local civil rights organizations led to the founding of the National Urban League. The Urban League is one of the preeminent civil rights organizations in the United States, and it still remains active today.

George Edmund Haynes
Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston, now one of Barnard’s most famous alumnae, was the first black woman to attend the college. Barnard founder Annie Nathan Meyer supported Hurston’s candidacy and raised money to cover her tuition. Despite Meyer’s efforts, however, Hurston encountered pervasive racism during her time as a student. Her academic work with Franz Boas inspired her to study African American folklore, but Hurston generally found Barnard to be an unwelcoming place.

A dramatic example of Columbia’s ongoing struggle with racism and the legacy of slavery is a cross burning that occurred on campus on April 3, 1924. This incident targeted a black law student, Frederick Wells, who was living in a campus dorm. A small group of white students protested Wells’s presence in the dorm to the dean and threatened him with violence. A few days later, a group of men burned a cross in the middle of the quad. The incident sparked national discussion in the media at the time, but it had been forgotten from Columbia’s history until this year. Discoveries like this one have prompted students to engage with the question of how to combat acts of forgetting and erasure both in their historical research and in preserving Columbia’s history in the present.

Frederick W. Wells


The research on Columbia, slavery, and its legacy is ongoing, and we continue to welcome suggestions and collaboration from fellow researchers and members of the public. Focusing on undergraduate research, we aim to help students to develop archival research skills and familiarity with historical methods. These experiences, we argue, are key to empowering students and developing their sense of civic engagement. Thank you, and please continue to explore the website to learn more about our work, read Professor Eric Foner’s report, and view the students’ research projects.