June 14, 2024

A CT city could have had the first Black college in America. But the opposition was too strong, as 'knowledge is power.' – Hartford Courant

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Courtesy Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library/Courtesy Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
This painting shows the three churches on the New Haven Green and the statehouse behind Center Church, since torn down, which was built when New Haven was a co-capital with Hartford. The town meeting to vote on a proposed Black college was held in the statehouse.
Courtesy Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library/Courtesy Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
Simeon Jocelyn, minister at the Temple Street Congregational Church, led the effort to found a Black college in New Haven.
Courtesy Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library/Courtesy Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
The title card to the documentary “What Could Have Been,” about the effort to found a Black college in New Haven.
Courtesy Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library/Courtesy Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
William Lloyd Garrison, a leading abolitionist and publisher of The Liberator, was involved in the effort to found a Black college in New Haven.
Courtesy Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library/Courtesy Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
A pamphlet compiled by engraver John Warner Barber recounts the details of the effort to found a Black college in New Haven and the 700-4 vote against it. He wrote “To be carefully preserved” on the cover.

The year 1831 seemed the perfect time to start a new venture in New Haven, one that would bring education and prosperity to the Black community in the city and beyond.
It would be the first Black college, created by Black and white leaders in the city to teach those who were descended from slavery, or formerly enslaved themselves, classical subjects as well as practical trades such as agriculture and mechanics.
“In 1831 you have the dawn of the abolition era and you have this emergence of Black leadership in New Haven,” said Tubyez Cropper, director of the film “What Could Have Been” and program manager of community engagement at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale.
The film produced by the Beinecke, will be shown at the New Haven Museum today at 6 p.m. followed by a discussion.
In 1831, William Lloyd Garrison‘s newspaper, The Liberator, began publishing. Abolition was gaining momentum, although Connecticut did not abolish slavery until 1848.
“Connecticut was not as progressive as … what is popularly perceived,” Cropper said. “And essentially, Connecticut was one of the last Northern states to abolish slavery. But you have all of these great Black leaders, both in New Haven, Philadelphia and New York, coming together to create the first of its kind. But there’s also great white leaders as well that are helping to push it because they have the voice and people will listen.”
Simeon Jocelyn, a white minister to the Black Temple Street Congregational Church, wrote to Garrison and Black leaders such as Richard Allen in Philadelphia.
A site was picked out, at Water and Wallace streets, in a building located where Interstate 95 now runs. New York philanthropist and abolitionist Arthur Tappan bought the building for $1,000.
New Haven was seen by advocates of the Black college as a perfect location. Yale College was the nation’s largest, with 469 white male students. As the proceedings of the 1831 convention in Philadelphia read:
“First, the site is healthy and beautiful. Second, its inhabitants are friendly, pious, generous and humane. Third, its laws are salutary and protect all without regard to complexion. Fourth, boarding is cheap and provisions are good. Fifth, the situation is as central as any other that can be obtained with the same advantages.”
But it was not to be. Reactionary forces rose up, concerned about the impact a new college would have on Yale and about the influx of Black students, especially from the South, from which Yale attracted many of its students.
Mayor Dennis Kimberly called a town meeting in the statehouse behind Center Church on the Green. The vote was 700-4 against the college. The dream was dead. The first Black college in America would be the African Institute, now Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, founded in 1837.
“The big story here is this was not that long ago,” Cropper said. And what we want people to realize in all these stories that are uncovered, but especially something like this is, a lot of the roads, a lot of the buildings are still here, so it helps people to realize what once was and what almost could have been.”
He said one purpose of the film “is to just push that envelope that this was real. The places that were in existence in 1831 for the most part are still here. … There’s so much New Haven history and New Haven was a major player in our national development and at that time in the center of U.S. news was something as new as [the Black college].”
The history of the would-be college was not forgotten. “The story itself, the people who are part of it, was preserved,” Cropper said. “John Warner Barber, who was a New Haven engraver, had a compilation of everything that happened, everything that transpired in that short time in 1831.”
A handwritten note on both the cover and first page reads, “To be carefully preserved.” “This is a great document that really shows its existence and puts it in perspective,” Cropper said.
The idea of a Black college in New Haven was historic in itself, but that wasn’t all. “It is notable that the college would have had four Black trustees and three white trustees and it was revolutionary in 1831,” said Michael Morand, director of community engagement at the Beinecke, who wrote the film with Cropper.
“The funding would have been half from Black people and half from white people,” he said. “So it’s an early and revolutionary proposal. That it didn’t happen is terrible, but it did set the ground for later organizing and development.”
Morand said it’s important to look at both negative and positive parts of history. “We celebrate firsts and triumphs. As a dominant culture we tend to look away at hard history. But we need to know all of our history,” he said.
“In the 1831 convention, among their resolutions you see the timeless statement that knowledge is power,” he said. “That white leadership of New Haven fought against it because they wanted to hold on to power, did not want power to be shared with their Black neighbors. They knew also that knowledge is power.”
Morand sees echoes today in that effort to preserve white dominance. “We can look around our country today and see the history wars and the laws being passed by states to prevent teaching, not to have advanced-placement African-American studies in high schools. And it’s a reminder that we know now, as was known then, that knowledge is power.”
With their film, Morand said he and Cropper are “bringing forward the stories so that we can engage the past in our present, in order to hopefully transform and improve the future.”
Margaret Anne Tokarshewsky, executive director of the New Haven Museum, said, “It’s important that we understand the past and little-known stories or … hidden stories. We have no idea, and it’s only through research and conversation, that they’re going to become better known.”
Charles Warner Jr. is narrator of “What Could Have Been” and chairman of the history committee at Dixwell Congregational UCC Church, which started as Temple Street Congregational, said city leaders, Black and white, spoke out after the college was defeated.
“There are people like Bias Stanley, who wrote a letter to the newspaper after the idea was shot down, basically trying to assuage the white citizens about not wanting to force social equality, and not looking to supplant all white people in town, but really just that these were citizens who are interested in developing themselves,” Warner said.
With six enslaved people in Connecticut in 1831, the state was hardly a progressive model. “Garrison once called in the 19th century, Connecticut, the Georgia of New England,” Morand said. “Connecticut was reactionary, more reactionary on racial questions and racial inclusion than other states in New England.”
He said the state “enshrined in its Constitution the prohibition against Black men voting,” which wasn’t reversed until 1870 when the 15th Amendment gave all men the right to vote.
The opposition to the Black college involved Yale as well, which white leaders thought would be threatened. “In reality, Yale was New Haven; New Haven was Yale. And Yale had stature,” Cropper said. “Many newspapers talked about how detrimental this move would be to such a college and how it would destroy their nation.”
The Black college was compared to “bees being drawn to a hive, and it would ruin the entire reputation of a thriving place,” Cropper said.
Yale also depended heavily on Southern students, even naming the former Calhoun College after pro-slavery vice president of the United States, John C. Calhoun. “Obviously, Yale would not have as many students coming from the South” if there were a Black college, Cropper said. “That would change a lot. It might have changed the economy.”
Warner said “the next up-and-comers who have prominent children flocking to New Haven” were from both North and South “because the sons of the Southern gentry could afford to pay the tuition. So Yale had recruited among Southerners, the plantation owners, to send their sons to Yale. So you had at the time a Southern presence in the city.”
Warner said it would have been jarring for owners of the enslaved to see “the very people who have no rights and work my fields and farms are walking around New Haven sharing sidewalk space and free and participating, like out in the open as free people and it’s offensive.”
Opposition was strong among the white elite of New Haven, such as Ralph Ingersoll, “who was the congressman at the time,” Warner said. “And interestingly enough, he also was the legal representative for the Spanish crown in the Amistad case.”
There was also David Daggett, chief justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court, who ruled against Prudence Crandall’s plan to open a school for Black girls, opposed by the town of Canterbury. His ruling was used in the infamous Dred Scott decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which said Scott, who was enslaved, couldn’t bring suit in federal court.
Cropper worries the college would not have survived, given the race riots at the time. “But I also think about the pros, being this would have changed an entire generation of Black children and would have changed an entire culture,” he said. “And who knows what the relationship would have eventually turned into between Yale and that college, and how they could have collaborated and built up New Haven even more.”
Morand also speculated, “If the college had happened, perhaps the resolution to slavery as an institution would have come before 1865. Perhaps Reconstruction could have been better, because even more of an educated leadership could have come sooner and better and lasted more and been able to withstand the white reactionary forces that brought upon Jim Crow.”
“The presence of an institution of higher learning affects so many areas of living; it really does,” Warner said. “You think about what it would have meant for creating an educated class of people who had the knowledge to start financial institutions or agriculture businesses, manufacturing jobs. … It really would have given New Haven’s Black community a very solid and firm footing.”
Warner attended Morehouse College, a historically Black men’s college, and said “there’s a piece of education that happens outside of academics that relate to cultural education and self-esteem and focus on who you are.”
“I can tell you that my first week there I was thoroughly immersed in a cultural, social, historical inundation that introduced me to the spirit of not only the school but the purpose and where we fit into that,” Warner said.
The importance of historically Black colleges and universities can’t be underestimated, he said. “People literally were able to leave slavery in 1865 and find their way to being attorneys and being doctors,” he said.
But despite the defeat of New Haven’s Black college, “the story doesn’t end in a sad way to me if you know how to look at it,” Warner said.
“The same group of people who pushed for the Negro college are the same people who sprung into action when the Amistad incident took place,” he said. “They’re also the same folks as old men who pressed Abraham Lincoln for intervention in the eradication of slavery in the South. And the same men who galvanized themselves to address the needs of the great number of newly freed enslaved people in the South.”
Ed Stannard can be reached at estannard@courant.com.
The story was edited to correct John C. Calhoun’s title as U.S. vice president.
Copyright © 2024 Hartford Courant

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