Monday, February 12, 2007

Elihu Yale: what's wrong with this picture?

Since 1910, presiding over meetings of the trustees of Yale University has been a portrait of Elihu Yale, attended by a slave. Word about it got out in a major way after a student slipped into the board room and took a digital photo. "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 Hartford Courant reports.

Although Elihu Yale was not himself a slave owner, over the past several decades students have spoken out about the portrait’s implication of slavery. There are two other portraits of Elihu with black servants in the Yale collection.

“Since the portrait is confusing without the explanation [that Elihu Yale did not own slaves], I have decided it would be prudent to exchange that portrait of Elihu to another one in the University’s collection,” [University Vice President and Secretary Linda] Lorimer said.

But even if Elihu Yale owned no slaves, it remains that eight of Yale's 12 residential colleges bear the names of slaveholders, including John C. Calhoun: In Calhoun College, "
[s]ome of the stained-glass windows in the . . . dining hall depict slaves picking cotton," according to the Yale Daily News. Picking the remnants of slavery out of Yale, or Brown, or New York City or just about any place on the eastern seaboard with any history at all is pretty impossible. Plucking a picture off a wall is easy, in some ways too easy. Yale's history might be better acknowledged and dealt with if that troublesome portrait were to hang around a bit longer.

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