Yale and Slavery in Historical Perspective

Peter Salovey, President of Yale University
October 28, 2021
Annual Conference Hosted by the Gilder Lehrman Center

Good afternoon, everyone. I am Peter Salovey, president of Yale University.

I look forward to the conversations we will have about “Yale and Slavery in Historical Perspective,” the theme of this year’s annual conference hosted by the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition. Soon I will turn things over to David Blight, Sterling Professor of History, Professor of African American Studies and of American Studies, and director of the Gilder Lehrman Center, who will introduce our special guests: Elizabeth Alexander and Jonathan Holloway. But first, I would like to share a few reflections about the significance of this conference and the work it represents.


Yesterday, I walked by Connecticut Hall. It’s a building I’ve passed by and entered countless times since I arrived at Yale over 40 years ago. For Yale College faculty meetings alone, I have spent hundreds of hours in it. Because of the Yale and Slavery Working Group’s research, I stopped to look at this building with greater intention and mindfulness.

Of course, I’ve known that because Yale goes back more than three centuries, people in our university’s history must have been involved with slavery. And I’ve known that people who were enslaved were instrumental in building the earliest facilities used by Yale and those at similar institutions around the country. However, the Yale and Slavery Working Group’s scholarship has made our past vivid and concrete.

So, yesterday, when I looked at Connecticut Hall, I thought about the Africans who were enslaved laying bricks and mortar to form that building, a place that has facilitated teaching and learning for generations of Yalies. As you know, the contributions of those who were enslaved have been unacknowledged by so many of us.

Yale, much like the rest of America’s oldest institutions of higher education, has seldom, if ever, recognized the labor, the experiences, and the contributions of enslaved people and their descendants to our university’s history or our present.

We turn away from reminders that those in Connecticut and at Yale actively participated in the enslavement and transportation of Africans and of Indigenous peoples. We also rarely recognize the courage and legacy of abolitionists who persevered in the face of violence and hate to organize and work to end slavery.

So, today, we are acknowledging that slavery and the slave trade are part of Yale’s history—our history. We do this because moving forward requires an honest reckoning with our past. And because the purpose of our university—to create, preserve, and disseminate knowledge—calls us to do so.

Uncovering, interpreting, and writing that history is the essential purpose of the Yale and Slavery Working Group’s charge. So, this conference is part of a longer project of seeking and telling the truth at Yale through research and scholarship.

In the fall of 2020, I asked a group of faculty, staff, students, and community members to investigate the university’s historic roles in and associations with slavery, the slave trade, and abolition. Chaired by Professor Blight, the Yale and Slavery Working Group has a broad mandate.

We want this project to produce rich new scholarship that will be meaningful not only to the Yale community, but to the people of our home city and state and to scholars from many disciplines and many other institutions.


We are fortunate that we do not do this work alone.

I am grateful to those at other universities who have led scholarship in this area, including the 80 institutions in the Universities Studying Slavery consortium. As we learn from the shared commitment and varied approaches institutions are taking to reckon with their past, we will determine how Yale will find its place among them.

I also am appreciative of and encouraged by those who have similarly moved Yale forward in key moments over the past three centuries. In every generation, individuals in our community have encouraged us to expand our moral conscience.

I think of those who led anti-slavery efforts from centuries ago, such as abolitionist James W.C. Pennington, who liberated himself from slavery and went on to study at the Yale Divinity School, though he was not allowed to enroll officially, nor enjoy the privileges of being a matriculated Yale student. He served as a delegate to the second World Anti-Slavery Convention in London and recruited Black soldiers for the Union Army. He is now remembered through a portrait and a scholarship and classroom named in his honor at the school. And I think of Yale graduate Cassius Marcellus Clay, who lost a fourth term in the Kentucky House of Representatives because of his fervent opposition to slavery. He survived an assassination attempt, mob violence, and death threats to go on to become a major general with the Union Army. The Yale history department awards a postdoctoral fellowship named after him.

In more recent history, I think of the students who founded the Black Student Alliance at Yale and the Association of Native Americans at Yale during times when Black and Indigenous students were excluded from full engagement with university life. Those students ushered in extraordinary change on campus, including the development of our African American Studies major and our Afro-American Cultural Center—one of the first campus Black cultural centers in the nation—and, some years later, our Native American Cultural Center.

I also think of coeducation and how those trailblazers—including women of color who faced additional intolerance and prejudice—transformed Yale. And they went on to catalyze major shifts in other institutions, in so many fields and professions, and in communities around the world.

Their example inspires us to look at the findings of the Yale and Slavery Working Group with both an aim to understand what got us here and to improve our future.


The initial findings to be discussed at this conference are as simple as they are sobering.

We must not look away from the fact that enslaved Africans worked to build Connecticut Hall. We must not look away from the fact that leading figures associated with the founding and early years of the college enslaved Africans and Indigenous peoples. And we know that the consequences of slavery include inequality and injustice—as well as anti-Black and anti-Indigenous hate.

We are taking initial actions to reconcile what we know of Yale’s past with our responsibilities in the present. In the months to come, we will provide additional details about these preliminary steps.

First, we must ensure that our institutional memory reflects the full detail and texture of our past. The monuments and works of art on campus serve as reminders of who we were, who we are, and who we aspire to be. However, what surrounds us does not reflect our whole history and presents an incomplete narrative of our identity.

Therefore, I will ask the Committee on Art in Public Spaces to engage our community in a process leading to permanent memorialization of enslaved people who have thus far been silenced by our university’s history. By memorializing the Africans and Indigenous people who were enslaved, we ensure that all those who work, live, and visit our campus will know the truth about our past.   

Second, we must address the reality that the descendants of those who were enslaved and those who have been historically marginalized because of their race and color do not have equal access to higher education. And in 1831, prominent members of the Yale community helped New Haven leaders prevent the establishment of a college for Black students in our city.

We must strengthen our connections with Historically Black and Tribal Colleges and Universities, so we can work together to reduce the cost of a college education and to create pathways for students to move among our institutions to enhance their studies. This work requires dialog to ensure programs are developed jointly with Historically Black and Tribal Colleges and Universities and are addressing current barriers and obstacles.

I will share details of such programs as these collaborations are developed.

In the coming months, we will continue to learn from the research findings of the Yale and Slavery Working Group. And this will present further opportunities to consider how we, as a community, might respond. In the meantime, the group’s scholarship is informing our Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging efforts.

We also are working closely with our home city. A year ago, Mayor Justin Elicker and I established a committee of university and community leaders to evaluate opportunities benefiting New Haven and Yale. The committee has identified a number of potential collaborations that we will consider. Yale also will meaningfully increase its direct financial support to New Haven—further extending our lead as the university that makes the largest annual contribution to its host city. Mayor Elicker and I will provide additional details in the coming weeks.

Through our collective actions, we will strengthen our community.


I would like to extend my deepest gratitude to Professor Blight and to all members of the Yale and Slavery Working Group and the Yale student-researchers. And, on behalf of the entire university, I thank all of you for your participation in this conference.

I look forward to learning from you and with you. The work you are doing will be appreciated not only today, but for generations to come.

Now, I will turn things over to Professor Blight to introduce our very special guests, who are joining us via Zoom.