Monday, February 19, 2007

Elihu Yale Portrait Controversy

This post is about money and universities, though not the typical focus of money-law. I hope to be back soon to writing about rankings of law journals and the role of race of the study body in US News rankings.

Yale has recently decided that it will take down a picture of Elihu Yale, the university's namesake, which depicts a young enslaved male (who is wearing a metal collar) waiting on him. I had never heard of the picture before the story broke. Yet, now that I see it, I think it's an important depiction of the connections between that great university and the institution of slavery. I've posted the picture, from the Hartford Courant website at right. Here's the Courant's article on the controversy.

The article reports that the painting hung in a room where the trustees met, though the room apparently was not generally open to the public. It is going to replace the offending portrait with another one, which does not have a slave in it.

Yale has other portraits of its benefactor, with less historical baggage. A painting of roughly the same size - of Yale standing alone by a table, a seascape behind him - will soon be dusted off and pulled from a storeroom at the Yale University Art Gallery to replace the one up now.

The African slave trade was brought to America by European settlers, desperate for bodies to work the sugar and cotton plantations, to supply their trading empires with goods. In paintings of the time, images of blacks in metal collars, marking them as slaves, were not uncommon, said John Marciari, a curator of early European art at Yale.

"It's a simple but lamentable fact of history," he said.
I think it's important to talk about the past and so I am grateful for the discussion of the Yale portrait. But I also worry when I see an effort to erase history, which may be one effect of moving the portrait. Lots to talk about here, of course. (I wrote about some of these kinds of issues last fall over at blackprof, though those posts focused largely on Brown University's slavery and justice report and on what to make of connections to slavery now.) I hope in the not-too-distant future to complete a monograph on the connections between universities and proslavery thought, which I have tentatively titled University, Court, and Slave.

Thanks to Jim Campbell for alerting me to this story.

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