The revelation last year that Georgetown University had, in 1838, sold 272 slaves owned by the school in order to pay off debts reignited a conversation about how America and its old, elite institutions of higher education have continually failed to reckon with their ties to slavery.

In recent years, the calls for a more honest discussion about the legacy of slavery and the honoring of known slaveholders and traders at some of the nation’s most revered schools have intensified. But in order to even begin to talk about this linkage—and how to cope with it—schools must delve into their histories and provide a greater level of transparency about their once-close relationships with human bondage. A new research project at Columbia University is attempting to do just that. They released a preliminary report this week.

I spoke with Eric Foner, the professor at Columbia who is heading the project, to learn more about what it is and what they hope to achieve. The interview below has been lightly edited for clarity.

Gillian B. White: What spurred your group to put together this report on Columbia’s relationship with slavery at this moment?

Eric Foner: This has been going on at many universities lately. The real catalyst was the appearance of this book by Craig Wilder, Ebony and Ivy, which is about institutions of higher learning and their relationship with slavery.

[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?

Foner: You’re talking about six or seven schools during that time, but they were all connected in some way with money rising out of slavery. Wilder’s book provides lots of good history.

White: How long did the funneling of money from the slave trade and into Columbia’s coffers last?

Foner: After the revolution, King’s College changed its name to Columbia. Then slavery was abolished gradually in New York. Little by little Columbia’s direct connection fades away. But New York City in the 1830s and ’40s is still very tied into the cotton trade. We don’t like to think about this as New Yorkers, we like to think of it as a bastion of liberalism. But New York was a pro-slavery city. The economy was very connected to the South and to slavery.

White: How was that reality reflected in the school during that time?

Foner: You didn’t have people advocating for the positive good of slavery. You didn’t have John C. Calhoun here. Columbia was connected to a very moderate anti-slavery sentiment—the Colonization Society. It was an anti-slavery society in that it wanted to get rid of slavery—but it also wanted to get rid of all the black people and send them back to Africa. In the 1830s you get the rise of a more abolitionist activist movement.

We found one Columbia grad who could be called a radical abolitionist—John Jay II, the grandson of the founding father. He graduated in 1834, and he actively defended fugitive slaves in court. But as far as actual, radical abolitionist with ties to the school, he was it.

It’s also true that in the Civil War, despite this being a pro-southern city, Columbia was very associated with the Union and was very supportive of Union efforts.

White: So how do you think people should digest this information?

Foner: The specific response of Columbia to these findings—I don’t know yet. What the implications are for the university and the public, it’s too soon to tell.

But it’s an important feature of our history. It’s been really ignored in the official histories of Columbia. We’re doing what universities are supposed to do, produce knowledge and disseminate it, uncovering  neglected piece of our history. It illuminates the history of not only the school, but of New York, too.