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Yale removed portrait of its namesake with slave

Thursday, April 5, 2007

A portrait of one of Yale University’s earliest benefactors being waited on by a dark-skinned servant – the subject of campus debate for at least a decade – will be removed and replaced by a less controversial image, Yale administrators announced in early February.

The painting of Elihu Yale has hung for over a century above a mantle in the conference room that hosts meetings of the Yale Corporation, the university’s governing body.

“The issue has come up several times in my 13 years, but in every case, the individuals raising it recognized that the full understanding of the story did not comport with the superficial observation of the portrait,” said Linda Lorimer, Yale vice president and secretary. “The facts are such that Elihu Yale did not support slavery and in fact did not have slaves. That was why, in the past, I felt it was better to leave the painting there.”

After speaking with a senior trustee who pointed out that many do not know the portrait’s background, Lorimer said she realized the work might be misinterpreted as racist and decided to replace it with an image of Elihu Yale that features no servants.

“It’s easy to focus on the portrait and be scandalized,” said James Campbell, Brown associate professor of history, chair of the University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice and a Yale alum. “But I think it’s important to remember that this is only a very graphic example of a fundamental truth of our nation’s history.”

John Errico, a Yale junior, said that while he doesn’t think the university would shy away from the issue if confronted directly, connections to the slave trade are “sort of swept under the rug.”

“A majority of the residential colleges are named after slaveholders … but obviously that’s never mentioned,” Errico said. “I can’t recall any specific things that the university is doing currently to distance itself from that history besides just not mentioning it at all.”

Helaine Klasky, Yale’s director of public affairs and special assistant to the president, called Yale a “leader in scholarship on slavery,” citing its Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition.

Campbell praised Yale for steps it has already taken, noting the center and a program supporting students who serve local schools in particular as initiatives similar to those advocated by the slavery and justice committee.

Lorimer said the painting will go back into the university’s collection but said the switch is by no means an attempt to “hide from the history.”

Robert Forbes, lecturer in history at Yale and former associate director of the Lehrman Center, said the painting could be a tool for studying Yale’s history. If displayed with “really good documentation and curatorial attention,” a work like this would “make an ideal point of entry into a very important and complicated part of Yale’s history,” he said.

“The institutions in the 21st century do not need to turn away from difficult aspects of their history,” Forbes said. “I don’t think we need to be embarrassed by these artifacts. I think we need to understand them.”

Campbell echoed those sentiments. “The revelation about the portrait’s existence obviously generated a lot of controversy, but it’s also an opportunity.” He said the University’s slavery and justice committee confronted similar issues when it discovered that a clock hanging in University Hall once belonged to a slave ship commander.

“The simple fact is that any institution in our country of the vintage of Yale or Brown is going to have a history deeply entangled with the institution of slavery,” Campbell said. “Rather than try to evade that, it seems to me that the most sensible, edifying thing for a university to do is to face that history openly and forthrightly.”

Errico said most other students he has talked to do not find the painting particularly offensive, probably because its existence came as little surprise. With a residential college at Yale named for John C. Calhoun, a former U.S. vice president and a fierce defender of slavery, he said students are generally quite aware of Yale’s past involvement with slavery.

Still, Errico said he understands the sensitivity of the subject. “There certainly should be a forum for acknowledging or observing this,” he said. As for whether such a forum already exists, Errico said he didn’t know, adding that if there was one, “it couldn’t hurt to make it more obvious or transparent to the students.”

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