The Symbols are fast being hidden, but the same attitudes still exist
Yale Portrait Coming Down
Painting Suggests Link To Slavery
February 8, 2007
By KIM MARTINEAU, Courant Staff Writer
NEW HAVEN -- After years of complaints, Yale University is taking down a painting of Elihu Yale that shows the wealthy merchant being waited on by a black man with a silver collar around his neck - an unmistakable symbol of bondage.
Elihu Yale apparently did not own slaves but critics over the years have objected to the painting's racist overtones and the significant place it is displayed at the university named for him. The portrait hangs over an ornate fireplace in the Corporation Room in Woodbridge Hall, meeting place for the university's board of trustees.
The flap over the painting comes as some of the nation's oldest, most prestigious colleges confront a shameful side of their past. Important founding figures at Yale, Brown and other schools had ties to the slave trade, as did many of America's founding fathers. In 2001, several graduate students at Yale revealed that a majority of Yale's dorms were named after prominent people who owned slaves or at one time expressed pro-slavery views, including U.S. Vice President John Calhoun and inventor Samuel Morse.
This fall, Brown unveiled a report detailing its founding family's relationship to the slave trade. Brown's president, Ruth Simmons, a descendent of slaves and the first African American to head an Ivy League school, asked for the investigation three years ago, after an ad railing against slavery reparations ran in the campus paper.
Yale's vice president and secretary Linda Lorimer told the Yale Daily News the portrait would be replaced by the end of the semester with another portrait of Elihu Yale. The painting was confusing, she said, in that it failed to explain that Elihu Yale did not own slaves. Lorimer declined an interview request Wednesday.
Elihu Yale made his fortune working for the British East India Co. When a Puritan minister asked him to help out a fledgling school in Connecticut, Yale shipped over a carton of books and other gifts in 1718. The school eventually took the merchant's name in gratitude.
At about the same time, a British artist painted Yale seated at a table in a sumptuous coat, as a black man wearing a metal collar and cloak waited on him. In 1910, another benefactor donated the life-size portrait to the university and since then, it has hung in Woodbridge Hall, the seat of power on campus. The painting has been described as the focal point of the room where the trustees meet, floating over a long wooden table, flanked by portraits of past Yale presidents.
Two years ago, a student slipped away from a press conference held inside the building by Yale President Richard Levin on a cold winter day and sneaked into the private Corporation Room to snap Elihu Yale's picture. Word of the offensive art had been passed down through the years and the student, Thomas Frampton, now an organizer in Chicago for the labor union Unite Here, wanted to bear witness. He mailed the digital photo to his friends.
Phoebe Rounds, now a senior, was stunned by what she saw. She couldn't understand how the trustees could look on that painting as it stood, without context or apology. "It's so unrepresentative of the values that I hope define Yale now," she said.
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.
Some museums have since painted over the collars to make the art more palatable.
Yale trustee Roland Betts, a friend of President George W. Bush's from Yale and chairman of Chelsea Piers in New York, said he was not familiar enough with the painting to comment. Attempts to reach other trustees were unsuccessful.
Contact Kim Martineau at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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