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  • Writer's pictureMuni Suleiman

On the Record

The historical markers project grapples with the University’s ties to white supremacy.

By Muni Suleiman


On April 19, 2022, Reuters ran a feature on the University’s newly announced historical markers project, titled, “Columbia University to publicly mark its historic ties to slavery, racism.” The piece included statements from Thai Jones, a Columbia professor and historian of social movements in the 20th century. Jones teaches the seminar Columbia and Slavery and spearheaded the commemorative project. Historical markers acknowledging the University’s history of slavery and anti-Black racism, he announced, were to be placed in Furnald, Hartley, John Jay halls, as well as in 50 Haven Avenue (formerly known as Bard Hall) at the Irving Medical Center. As a result of President Bollinger’s University-wide review following the May 2020 murder of George Floyd and in collaboration with the President’s Commission on the History of Race and Racism at Columbia University, the University Libraries, and the Columbia University and Slavery Project, the historical markers project’s advocates aspire to spread awareness about how the histories of these residential halls hold continued importance for Columbia.


Research for the historical markers project emerged from the Columbia and Slavery seminar. The course, which has been taught by Jones, Eric Foner, and Elizabeth Blackmar, among others, offers a flexibility and collaboration uncharacteristic of history classes at Columbia. Student interests guide the learning and knowledge production process, regardless of prior experience in archival research. “People come to this class who are already interested in thinking about Columbia critically,” Jones told me. “They want it to be better. They want to learn more about it. They want people today to know about the past here.”


Since the seminar’s first iteration in 2015, discoveries have transformed the perspectives of its professors and students alike on the historic association of Columbia’s campus and its affiliates with slavery. For example, the first time Jones taught the class, Jordan Brewington, CC ’17, identified over 50 digitized advertisements for wanted fugitive slaves owned by Columbia affiliates, making clear the investment that such actors had in maintaining slavery.


The course also enabled Olganydia Plata Aguilera, CC ’23, to hone the skills and experiences she needed in order to practice descendant-led archaeology. She employs this method to help undo the historical harms of the field, and to “do internal work” as a First-Generation Latina student contending with her own relationship with the University’s discriminatory foundations. After Plata Aguilera took the class in the fall of 2021, Jones selected her alongside three other former students to contribute to the historical markers project in its early stages. The initiative was part of Jones’s push to make the research conducted in the Columbia and Slavery seminars more accessible to the public.


Alongside Jones and Plata Aguilera, the team includes Vice Provost and University Librarian Ann Thornton; Columbia and Slavery postdoctoral research fellow Joshua Morrison; Tommy Song, CC ’20, Journalism ’22; GSAPP doctoral student Charlette Caldwell; Stella Kazibwe, CC ’22; and Trey Greenough, GS ’22. Jones thought it was important to include past students, given their first-hand experiences in dorms and their understanding of students’ concerns regarding Columbia’s impact on the surrounding community.


Each student took responsibility for one residence hall marker or initiative. Unlike the other students in the cohort, Plata Aguilera focused on Barnard’s campus because her research centered on Zora Neale Hurston’s challenges with residential life during her time as both an undergraduate at Barnard and a master’s student at Columbia. The initial story of Barnard housing, Plata Aguilera explained, is one of “absence.” She analyzed Hurston’s time at the University and examined the wider lack of historical knowledge concerning the Black women who followed in Hurston’s footsteps—specifically, those who began applying to live in Barnard residence halls in the 1950s and ’60s. “How do you make a residence hall marker when there is no physical place where they lived because either they were denied housing explicitly or because they couldn’t afford it?” Plata Aguilera asked.


The three undergraduate Columbia dorms were more straightforward to research. John Jay’s story centers the paradoxical status of the building’s namesake, both an abolitionist and a slave-owner. Hartley’s focuses on Langton Hughes’ experiences of anti-Black racism while attending Columbia. Furnald’s contextualizes the 1924 cross burning committed by the Ku Klux Klan on Furnald lawn as a premeditated attack against Frederick Wilson Wells, a Columbia Law student and one of the first Black students to reside on campus. It also highlights Columbia’s decision to formally introduce segregation in response.


Researching the histories of these halls has posed different challenges. Stella Kazibwe—one of the recent alumni on the historical markers team—explained that the University’s archives perpetuate the historical biases of their curators. Certain details about Columbia’s history of anti-Black racism and connections to slavery, she said, are significantly harder to find than others. For example, after a discussion with Professors Jones and Blackmar, Kazibwe decided to research the Columbia maid strike of the 1970s, which responded to anti-Black behavior from the majority wealthy, white male students who relied on their labor. However, most of the information available on the subject in the Columbia archives exists in the form of articles published by the Columbia Daily Spectator, which preserve only the perspective of said students. Though information on the strikes exists, Columbia’s archives demonstrate a lack of effort in preserving the maids’ perspectives. Kazibwe managed to piece together parts of the strikers’ stories from documents stored in the New York Times and NYU Tamiment Library archives.


Students in the Columbia and Slavery seminar found the scope of their research limited by the silences in Columbia’s archives.“The art of historical preservation is very elitist and rooted in white supremacy,” Kazibwe explained. “To deem something worthy of historical preservation means that this voice is important enough that future generations would benefit from knowing about it.”


Indeed, most students ended up researching white men. As one of the few Black students in her seminar, Kazibwe felt an imperative to do “the Black women research” when her peers chose topics with more accessible information. The disparity in the availability of archival material between white men and Black women is a direct consequence of the latter being overlooked in archival work, causing student researchers, in this case, to avoid them in favor of “easier” work. The Columbia maid strike was important to Kazibwe as she wanted to explore narratives of Black women at Columbia beyond simply their oppression, instead focusing on the efforts that they have made to overcome it. While her research was “emotionally taxing” compared to her peers, Kazibwe asserts that it was worth it because of her belief in finding more information on Black women at Columbia.


Illustration by Kat Chen

Columbia’s archives have gaps in other notable areas, especially regarding its early history. The University has moved twice since it was founded as King’s College in 1754, and its Morningside location is now the third in the school’s history. It was thus difficult to locate structures or graveyards, for example, relevant to the enslaved people connected with the University. “Columbia having moved twice has meant the loss of a very significant part of the early archives, which didn’t make the move,” Jones said. He, Morrison, and Plata Aguilera all suspect that this is largely how the University has avoided conversations about its legacies of anti-Blackness and slavery.


Student researchers have, however, persisted in uncovering the enslaved labor that cultivated the land prior to Columbia’s installment in Morningside Heights, as well as the slave-owning families who owned that land and who would go on to become Columbia affiliates. “Even though Columbia was not here yet, we know that this was farmland, pasture and orchard land worked by enslaved people,” Jones said. “I would love to see a monument telling that history.”


Every year, in concluding the Columbia and Slavery course, students collaborate on a list of “demands, suggestions, recommendations” that are presented to the president of the University. After, a formal email summarizing student presentations hits the inbox of the Office of the President, following up on this list. Past demands have ranged from curriculum reform to even removing the names Columbia and Barnard from the institutions, but the most consistent demand has been to simply increase awareness among the Columbia community about the history of the campus—in particular, the names that emblazon its edifices.


For a while, the administration’s response was disappointing. Plata Aguilera described one experience she had in the Office of the President, where, as her Columbia and Slavery cohort presented their research on the history of enslavement on campus, their words jarred against “blueprints of expansion into Harlem” that the office also houses. President Bollinger “was 10 minutes late and he came with his shirt unbuttoned. The entire time he was slouching,” she added.


Kazibwe has witnessed the response from the Columbia administration change over time. While she appreciated the opportunity to conduct and present the research, it seemed as if President Bollinger and other administrators did not want to acknowledge the Columbia and Slavery project at the risk of garnering “bad press.” The 2020 resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement put new pressure on the Columbia administration to acknowledge the project, as communities demanded accountability for the perpetuation of anti-Black racism and beneficiaries of slavery from various institutions, universities included.


Columbia is not the only University that has moved to acknowledge its institutional histories of anti-Blackness and slavery. Namely, the University of Virginia’s Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, on which Charlette Caldwell also worked, became a point of reference for Columbia’s historical markers team. Dr. Joshua Morrison, who did his graduate work investigating the individuals who were enslaved at UVA, has co-taught the Columbia and Slavery seminar and is also involved with the historical markers team as a post-doctoral fellow.


Building on the original research of Eric Foner, the founder of the Columbia and Slavery project, and recent undergraduate contributions, Morrison is working to track down all officials of King’s College and Columbia College that invested in chattel slavery and the over 1000 enslaved people they trafficked from 1750 to 1820 (when slavery was banned in the state of New York). He hopes that this work can expand the knowledge-base available to the Commission on the History of Race and Racism and increase visibility, generating institutional resources and support.


It is difficult to spread historical information and raise difficult questions in a way that engages undergraduates “without being too in their face,” Morrison said. “We recognize that these are dorms that you’re living in, you’re trying to live your life, and maybe having slavery rubbed in your face every 30 seconds isn’t a super positive experience.” Plata Aguilera and Kazibwe shared concerns about the triggering potential of the messaging for Black students who may already have knowledge of or experience anti-Black racism on campus. They would be reminded not only of the history of anti-Black racism in their residential halls but also of the ways in which things have not changed. The hope is that the Commission will be better-equipped to balance these concerns.


Morrison also hopes that, in the future, the historical markers project and the Commission on the History of Race and Racism will question the role of pre-existing monuments and statues. For example, the sizable Hamilton and Jefferson statues outside Pulitzer and Hamilton Halls, respectively, act as historical markers on the Morningside campus. Ironically, the larger-than-life Jefferson statue also sits outside of Furnald, not far from where the 1924 cross-burning incident occurred.


“There’s this intentional disconnect between what kinds of people are revered on campus and what kinds of voices get to be the loudest, and who gets a big statue versus who gets a small plaque,” Kazibwe said. “It’s really symbolic of what’s valued on campus.” Given that the Jefferson statue was added to the campus as a gift from Joseph Pulitzer’s estate and public subscription, for Plata Aguilera, “it’s this reminder that these stories aren’t dead.” The team generally agrees that the Jefferson statue should be removed.


Specifically targeting residential halls is a more recent development. After President Bollinger’s announcement that Columbia University’s Irving Medical Center’s Bard Hall would be renamed because of Bard’s history as a slave owner, the decision prompted a broader reconsideration of the names emblazoned on residential buildings. “People connect in an especially significant way with the place where they live,” Jones explained. “They deserve the opportunity to know the history of the spaces they inhabit. People who had lived at Bard Hall and didn’t know that history felt a really deep sense of betrayal. That was the impetus for this project.”


The initial goal set in April 2022 was to have all of the markers up by the end of 2022. But a slow bureaucratic process bounced the students’ research among committees for approval and delayed implementation. The first of the undergraduate residential historical markers was placed in Furnald Hall on Feb. 17. Jones anticipates that all of the markers will be in place by mid-March. In their current form, the existing markers are screen displays mounted on TVs that project the students’ research for the respective residence halls. They will serve as temporary displays for a projected 1-2 years while the team develops permanent markers.


The less than ideal transience of the digital stand-ins are comparably transient and easily removable compared to metal plaques. As Jones shared, however, the lengthy production timeline prompted a compromise in format. Supply chain problems that have made obtaining the materials for permanent installations difficult. Jones, however, believes the digital format to be beneficial in terms of student engagement, and will give the team the flexibility to alter the content of the permanent plaques in response to feedback from residents and other observers.


The current markers give a fuller picture of Columbia’s history with anti-Black racism and slavery by adding to preexisting signifiers. Specifically, Hartley already has a plaque commemorating Langston Hughes on the 10th floor; one difference between that marker and Hartley’s new one is that the location on the 10th floor makes it inaccessible or out of sight for most. Moreover, it focuses only on his contributions to the Harlem Renaissance, leaving out any mention of the strife Hughes experienced during his time at Columbia.


Due to President Bollinger’s creation of the Commission on the History of Racism at Columbia led by Professors Ira Katznelson and Mabel Wilson, Jones does not anticipate any other bureaucratic delays to the timeline. The project itself was, however, time-consuming, and finishing the non-digital markers may take years. For this final iteration of the project, discussions continue regarding location and whether to register the future plaques with New York State or establish them privately with the Columbia administration.


After Ann Thornton’s close collaboration with Honey Sue Fishman, the Assistant Vice President of Housing Services & Student Center Operations, the team placed the digital markers in the lounges of residential buildings. They decided that the front of the buildings would be overwhelmed with foot traffic from residents, food delivery services, and other students who use the buildings’ amenities.


John Jay, Hartley, and Furnald Halls are all currently predominantly occupied by first year students (although beginning in the 2023-2024 school-year, Hartley will be primarily occupied by sophomores). The fact that the halls are primarily for first-year students is a coincidence; nevertheless, these historical markers can seriously impact first-years’ understanding and perception of Columbia early in their college journey (especially considering Hartley’s additional connection to Black history through the Malcolm X Lounge).


A question then arises regarding the intended audience for these residential historical markers: How will faculty, staff, and other Columbia personnel, who have, at best, limited access to dorms, ever see them? Moreover, security guards, facilities, and dining hall staff, who are primarily Black and people of color, spend significant time in those halls. Plata Aguilera pointed out how troubling it might be to sit at the security desk for 12 hours watching students brush past a display on slavery’s continued impact on Columbia’s campus.


Still, the lounges seem best-suited to the project’s intentions, at least as far as Jones is concerned. He believes placing the markers in the lounges grants them significant visibility in places where people congregate.


Plata Aguilera pointed out the challenge of garnering the attention of a distractible student body. For her, the project’s priority should be to make histories of anti-Black racism and legacies of enslavement “as undeniable as possible, so they cannot be ignored.”


The historical markers project seeks to sink its roots deeper into the consciousness of the student body. Kazibwe and Plata Aguilera both expressed interest in having bigger events for the permanent markers when they are installed, especially in collaboration with Black student groups on campus, namely the Black Student’s Organization and the Barnard Organization of Soul & Solidarity. Notably, BSO and other Black affinity groups which form the Black Residential Space Collective received the first residential brownstone entirely dedicated to Black students at Columbia this February.


Jones hopes this project will lead to the eventual installation of informational displays at every relevant campus building. Up next, he said, should be Havemeyer. Campus tours frequently identify the building as a famed filming location for Spider-Man 2 and the home of the Department of Chemistry. However, as Jones said, “the Havemeyer family owned Domino Sugar, they enslaved people, they purchased sugar from forced labor in the South across the Caribbean.”


However, broader critiques concern whether or not acknowledgements or symbols are even enough to contend with Columbia’s legacies. These criticisms primarily ask if the project allows the Columbia administration to deflect from conversations regarding reparations and continued contributions to anti-Black racism via gentrification. “I would totally agree with the idea that this is not enough,” Jones said. “I never for a second thought that the point of these markers is to somehow release Columbia from the responsibility for this history … the first step is a step of information.” Jones hopes the conversation will lead to “any number of institutional transformations.”


For now, a television sits perched on wheels in Furnald’s lobby, ready to share its story to passersby. On the marker’s first day, a few rogue visitors strayed from a campus tour to observe the marker. Furnald freshmen glanced at the screen while eating lunch as a means of filling gaps in their conversations. Other students stopped for a moment before resuming laundry or other tasks; some stayed, even sat, for the full nine minutes of the presentation. One went as far as scanning the QR code at the end that leads to the Columbia University and Slavery website. After fading to black on Columbia’s decision to formally institute segregation, the video loops and Frederick W. Wells’ story returns to anyone willing to listen.


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