Post-1865: Research Process

by Mary T. Freeman

In comparison to the research on the pre-emancipation period, students found a greater abundance of archival materials documenting Columbia’s history after 1865. Columbia’s archives include detailed records of academics, student life, and organizations. They also contain large holdings of the papers of faculty members and administrators from this later period. Many of these collections have not been examined closely by previous researchers. Still, a pattern of silence persists surrounding issues of racism and the legacy of slavery at Columbia. Few sources document the experiences of early black students. And with a few exceptions, white students, faculty, and administrators were generally unwilling to confront pervasive racism on campus, in New York City, or beyond.

Types of sources

Students drew upon a wide range of printed, visual, and manuscript sources to conduct their research into the post-1865 period at Columbia. Some of the most significant resources included rich archival collections of Columbia faculty members, administrators, and student organizations, as well as the print and digital archives of campus publications such as the Columbia Daily Spectator. Other sources included student yearbooks, the published works of faculty members, and national newspaper archives.

Archival and manuscript collections

Columbia’s archives contain rich collections pertaining to the university’s faculty, administrators, and students in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Unlike the pre-1865 period, from which few detailed records have survived documenting the daily lives of students and faculty, Columbia’s post-1865 archives provide many details of academic and extracurricular activities. While early archives were not maintained systematically, the university maintained more detailed records after its final move to the present-day campus in Morningside Heights in 1897. Students drew upon sources including course syllabi, exams, and records of student organizations like the Glee Club to investigate questions about student life and campus culture.

Collections documenting the careers and lives of many prominent Columbia faculty and administrators are also held in Columbia’s archives and its Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Students examined the papers of figures including Columbia presidents Frederick A.P. Barnard, Seth Low, and Nicholas Murray Butler, as well as those of dean Herbert E. Hawkes. These men were involved in some of the major debates that shaped the university between the 1880s and 1920s, including the question of coeducation, the formation of the Core Curriculum, and the place of Jewish and African American students on campus. The papers of influential Columbia faculty members John W. Burgess and William A. Dunning provided significant insights into the role they played in producing racist historical scholarship on the Civil War and Reconstruction and also in shaping a racist and sexist campus climate.

John W. Burgess essay on slavery
A draft of an essay by Columbia professor John W. Burgess on slavery.

Students investigating the experiences of early black students discovered sources in the archives that have, until now, been overlooked for their significance to documenting Columbia’s history. For example, George Edmund Haynes, the first African American student to receive a doctoral degree from Columbia, was a founder of the National Urban League. A collection of his papers that document the League’s early history is housed at Columbia, as is Hayne’s dissertation, The Negro at Work in New York City. Some students dug deeply into the records of faculty, administrators, and student organizations to find traces of black students at Columbia. Scrapbooks created by Harlemite Alexander Gumby during the early decades of the twentieth century proved invaluable for examining the relationship between Columbia students and the surrounding community.

Scrapbook page with Birth of a Nation material
A page from one Harlem collector Alexander Gumby's scrapbooks documents protests by black New Yorkers to D.W. Griffith's film.

Finally, several students discovered significant sources at other New-York-area archives, including the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the New-York Historical Society, and the Brooklyn Historical Society. For instance, the papers of Frederick W. Wells, a black law student who was the target of a cross burning on Columbia’s campus in 1924, are held at the Schomburg Center. This collection demonstrates the reluctance of white Columbia students and faculty to confront even the most overt expressions of racism in their midst. Many of Wells’s strongest supporters came from outside the Columbia community.

Campus publications

Campus publications, including the complete digitized records of the Columbia Daily Spectator, the print records of periodicals like Acta Columbia and The Blue and the White, and college yearbooks, proved to be especially rich sources for student research. Campus publications provided opportunities for researchers to examine the activities of student groups and to trace the responses of students, faculty, and administrators to particular events and issues. For example, one researcher used reviews published in campus newspapers to investigate students’ responses to D.W. Griffith’s racist film, The Birth of a Nation. Yearbooks proved useful for identifying student groups and for gauging the campus climate surrounding issues of race and gender.

Columbia Spectator article on "The Joint Debate"
An 1890 article in the Columbia Spectator announced that the resolution to be discussed at the yearly "Joint Debate" would be "That the Negro should be Disfranchised."

National media

Events at Columbia have never occurred in a vacuum, and, much like today, Columbia’s reputation as a Northeastern Ivy League school meant that occurrences there drew nationwide interest and scrutiny. Furthermore, because of Columbia’s location in New York City, its students and faculty were themselves connected to ideas, events, and movements that had national significance. The scholarship of Columbia faculty such as John W. Burgess and William A. Dunning had a national audience, and students like George Edmund Haynes and Zora Neale Hurston achieved national prominence after their time spent at Columbia and Barnard. Researchers looked beyond the confines of Morningside Heights and New York City to examine the significance of these individuals in Columbia’s history. In addition, events on Columbia’s campus, such as the cross burning incident in 1924, drew nationwide attention and media coverage. Media sources, such as digitized collections of historical newspapers, enabled researchers to connect this event to larger historical issues such as Jim Crow segregation and disfranchisement in Southern states, the revival of the Ku Klux Klan, and the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to Northern cities during and after World War I.

Chicago Defender article
An article in the Chicago Defender newspaper discussed the cross burning that occurred on Columbia's campus in 1924.

What do these sources tell us about Columbia's history?

Sources documenting Columbia’s history after emancipation in 1865 demonstrate the university’s ongoing struggles with racism and the legacy of slavery. In many ways, Columbia’s history is representative of the broader history of the United States in this time period. Columbia wrestled with the consequences of the Civil War, emancipation, and Reconstruction. What was the place of former slaves and their descendants in American society? Were the measures put in place during Reconstruction and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution enough to guarantee equal civil and political rights for African Americans? Like the rest of the country, many Columbians came to prioritize reconciliation among Northern and Southern white people over the preservation of equal rights for all Americans. Columbia’s students, faculty, and administrators generally remained blind to the injustices of the Jim Crow South, and they were slow to recognize or confront the pervasive racism that existed in their midst. The primary sources researchers studied reflect a climate on campus that generally accepted and sometimes endorsed racist policies and actions.

As a large and influential Northern university, Columbia’s history is also distinct and worthy of study in its own right. Student researchers discovered archival and published primary sources that add detail and texture to our understanding of Columbia’s history. They uncovered the stories of individuals who have largely been overlooked, added nuance to conceptions of major figures in the university's history, and exposed Columbia’s primary relationship to the legacy of slavery as one of, at best, indifference, and, at worst, active participation in the broader racist culture of white American society between 1865 and 1930.