In 1755 a New York City newspaper carried an account of the swearing-in of the governors of the newly founded King’s College, which later grew into Columbia University. At the bottom of the page ran an advertisement for a rather different occasion: the sale of “TWO likely Negro Boys, and a Girl.”
The ad would have raised few eyebrows at King’s, where many of the college’s early presidents, trustees, donors and students owned slaves. But now it’s the opening example in a new report detailing Columbia’s historical ties to slavery.
The report, to be released by the university on Tuesday as part of a new website, offers no dramatic revelations akin to that of the sale of 272 slaves in 1838 that helped keep Georgetown University afloat and that has raised a contentious debate about reparations today. But it illuminates the many ways that the institution of human bondage seeped into the financial, intellectual and social life of the university, and of the North as a whole.
“People still associate slavery with the South, but it was also a Northern phenomenon,” Eric Foner, the Columbia historian who wrote the report, said in an interview. “This is a very, very neglected piece of our own institution’s history, and of New York City’s history, that deserves to be better known.”
Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia, said that while there were as yet no plans to act on the report, grappling with the university’s “complicity” with slavery was necessary to address current injustice.