[Columbia University] President [Lee] Bollinger asked if we were doing anything similar and I said, “No, but I’ve thought about it.” We knew Yale, Harvard, and Brown had done something—Princeton is doing something. It seemed like the time had come.
White: Given what was revealed recently about the relationship between Georgetown and slavery, can you put Columbia’s relationship in context for me?
Foner: We’re not like Georgetown. We didn’t own a plantation. We didn’t sell 200 some-odd slaves. Part of the difference in all of this is that we had no southern students! Princeton and Yale were full of students from the South. Columbia didn’t have any because Columbia didn’t have any dorms.
White: Because the North is rarely talked about when it comes to the brutality of slavery, it’s hard for some people to envision the role slavery played in New York. Can you talk to me about how economically dependent New York was on slavery?
Foner: In the colonial era slavery was a very important presence in the city and state. It wasn’t a plantation economy, but in 1750 I think about one-seventh of the population of the city were slaves. That’s not insignificant. More to the point, the elite, the one percent of this era— the people who founded King’s College and funded it—were leading merchants and if you were a leading merchant your money was coming from the West Indian slave trade, and the African slave trade.
New York was connected to the West Indies: food, trade, and slavery. We were very much integrated into a British Empire that was centered there.
White: So this is where the connection between Columbia’s early financing and slavery comes in?
Foner: There was an interlocking elite, big merchants, lawyers and so on. The Livingstons, the Delanceys, the Watts. All of them had some connection to slavery.
These well-to-do families had slaves working in their households. You’re not talking about 100 slaves, or plantations, you’re talking about a few. But most of the early presidents of the school owned slaves, most of the elite students had grown up with slaves. It was a very visible presence in the city and upstate.
The profits from the slave trade helped fund the school. King's College—and then Columbia—were rather small, but nonetheless there were faculty that had to be paid and the president, and so on. The biggest expense was the building that housed the college built way downtown, around Trinity church. They didn’t have a campus—they just had a building that cost a lot. So a lot of the fundraising went into that expense. The colony gave them some money, but they couldn’t live off of it, so the money was mostly from these donations from trustees.
White: Is this the story of most colleges in the U.S. that were founded around the same time, or were there any that didn’t hold slaves or didn’t derive any money from the slaving industry?