John Jay Hall Video Transcript

Columbia University and Slavery


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Columbia Enslavers 1740-1820

According to census records, Columbia administrators, trustees, and professors enslaved at least 227 people in 1790, 148 in 1800, 70 in 1810, and 9 in 1820.

Researchers, including undergraduate members of the Columbia University and Slavery seminar, have identified over 150 individuals enslaved by King’s College and Columbia affiliates. 

The true number of men, women, and children held in bondage between 1741 and 1827 was undoubtedly much higher.


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The Columbia University & Slavery Seminar

First offered by the History Department in 2015, the Columbia University & Slavery seminar is an undergraduate research course that runs during the fall semester. 

Student researchers in the seminar have led the way in discovering and examining Columbia’s connections to the history and legacies of enslavement.


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Student researchers

Students in the Columbia University and Slavery Project seminars have spent years examining archival documents and other historical sources to discover these hidden and forgotten stories.


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Olganydia Plata Aguilera
Columbia College '23

"Whenever I just walk around campus, I'm just kind of reminded of this research, and this history, and this knowledge…

What I would like to see on campus is more spaces where we can acknowledge that history but also make a space where we can also celebrate joy."


John Jay


[Description: black and white photo of John Jay Dining Hall, which opened in 1927. Image from Buildings and Grounds collection, Columbia University Archives]

John Jay at King’s College

John Jay arrived at King's College in 1760, at the age of 14. After his second year, his father remarked on his progress, noting that, “my Son John has now been two years at College, where he prosecutes his Studyes to satisfaction, he is induced with very good natural parts, and is bent upon a learned Profession, I believe it will be the Law.”


[Description: portrait of John Jay based on an image from the Columbia University Archives.] 

John Jay and Enslavement

Though he believed slavery to be immoral and supported gradual emancipation, John Jay (1745-1829) nevertheless enslaved people for most of his life.

While Jay consistently criticized slavery, he carefully weighed its immorality against any impositions on white people. In his own case, Jay enslaved people to ensure his financial interests.

As long as enslavement ended eventually in freedom, Jay considered his ownership of humans broadly acceptable.


[Description: Painting depicting a view of New York City in 1768 from the Columbia University Archives.]

Early Life

Born to a slaveholding family in 1745, Jay grew up on an estate outside of New York City where roughly a dozen enslaved people were forced to care for and enrich his family.

Long before his birth, Jay's father and grandfather had invested in a variety of mercantile ventures, including importing more than a hundred enslaved people to New York from the Caribbean. As a young man, Jay was cared for by an enslaved man named Claas.


[Description: Image of Sarah Livingston from the Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University.]

In 1774, Jay married Sarah Livingston, a member of one of colonial New York's richest families. Livingston's extended family included numerous merchants who imported enslaved people to the United States.

At the time of her marriage, Sarah Livingston enslaved at least one woman, Abigail, who later attempted to flee from the Jays in France.


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Tommy Song
Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism '22

"I hope these histories may inspire all of us to be vigilant about how our actions and behaviors are influencing others, because I think any systemic change starts with the personal and the interpersonal, and–eventually–the political."


[Description: picture of document detailing John Jay’s personal property. Image from John Jay papers, the Rare Book & Manuscripts Library, Columbia University]

This inventory of Jay's property. taken in late 1798, records his ownership of six enslaved people.


After the Revolution

As early as 1777, John Jay supported a ban on slavery in New York even as his family continued to rely heavily on enslaved labor. 

In 1779, Jay purchased an enslaved man, Benoit, for himself. Jay refused to free Benoit until he had earned "a moderate compensation for the money expended on him."

As the United States floundered after the American Revolution, Jay prioritized the preservation of the Union over almost every other consideration.

As a result, he accepted numerous compromises, including those that helped protect slavery.


[Description: picture of the title page of The Constitution of the New York Manumission Society. Image from the Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books Division; the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the New York Public Library]

Politics and Hypocrisy

In 1785, John Jay helped found the New York Manumission Society, an anti-slavery organization. 

With Jay as president, the group proclaimed: "It is our Duty ... to endeavour, by lawful ways and means, to enable [enslaved people] to Share, equally with us, in that civil and religious Liberty ... which these, our Brethren, are by nature, as much entitled as ourselves."

All the while, the organization allowed its members to own other humans.

While serving as Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court during the 1790s, Jay continued to enslave five people. As he later argued in his own defense, he purchased enslaved people and manumitted them after "their faithful services … afforded a reasonable retribution."


[Description: drawing of Bedford, the Westchester County estate of the Jay family. Image from The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, the New York Public Library. Caption of the drawing reads “Bedford House, Residence of the Honourable John Jay”]

Retirement and Legacy

During his first gubernatorial campaign in 1792, Jay was depicted by his adversaries as an abolitionist, contributing to his narrow defeat. When Jay became governor in 1795, he largely avoided the topic.

Behind the scenes, however, he supported a new effort to end slavery in the state. Pushed by the New York Manumission Society and the state's Black population, New York passed a gradual emancipation bill in 1799, although slavery remained legal until 1827.

In 1801, Jay retired to a country home in Bedford. Although slavery was still legal, the emancipation bill contributed to the institution's steady decline. This held true for the Jays as well. 

In 1800, Jay enslaved five people. Ten years later, he owned only one person.

John Jay died in 1829, having lived to see slavery finally outlawed in New York.


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The Names We Know

(People Enslaved by John Jay and the Jay Family)

  • Peet, 1771, 1782
  • Claas, 1775
  • Massey, 1778
  • Benoit, 1779
  • Clarinda, 1782
  • Old Mary, 1797
  • Young Mary, 1782
  • Lewis, 1782
  • Moll, 1782
  • Susan, 1782
  • Yaff, 1790
  • Pompey, 1791
  • Frank, 1792
  • Abigail, 1774-1783
  • Plato, 1794
  • Phillis, 1799
  • Zilpah, 1809


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Stella Kazibwe
Columbia College '22

"Yes, we're talking about history. But, at the same time, a lot of this is still happening, and it's very current."


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Next Steps

Learn More at the Columbia University & Slavery website.

Take the Seminars and research Columbia University's historical connections to enslavement and its legacies.



Information in this presentation was researched by the following individuals:

Charlette Caldwell

Thomas Germain

Trey Greenough

Thai Jones

Stella Kazibwe

Joshua Morrison

Olganydia Plata Aguilera

Tommy Song

and by participants in the Columbia University & Slavery and Columbia 1968 seminars


With Support From

Columbia University Office of the President

Columbia University Office of the Provost


Columbia University Libraries