His name was Will. We know that only because his owner, New Brunswick physician Jacob Dunham, kept meticulous financial records. Otherwise, he would have remained, like most enslaved people, nameless and  faceless in the eyes of history. We would never know that Will was hired out by his master for work ranging from masonry to manure-hauling. We wouldn’t know that he helped lay the foundation of Old Queens, the oldest building at Rutgers.

And still, most of us wouldn’t know about Will at all  if not for the dedicated work of Rutgers University–New Brunswick students and faculty, who researched the university’s complex relationship with slavery for the newly published book Scarlet and Black, Volume I: Slavery and Dispossession in Rutgers History (Rutgers University Press, 2016), the first of several projected volumes.

They revealed the fruits of their research during a  special event, also entitled Scarlet and Black, that  took place on November 18 in the College Avenue  Student Center at Rutgers–New Brunswick before a rapt overflow audience. What emerged was the image of a university whose beginnings were bound up with the institution of slavery and the dispossession of native peoples. The reality was underscored in introductory words by Deborah Gray White, Board of Governors distinguished professor of history at Rutgers–New Brunswick and chair of the Committee on Enslaved and Disenfranchised Populations in Rutgers History, which produced the book and the fall event. White was assisted by associate professor Marisa J. Fuentes, who directed the committee’s research, coedited Scarlet and Black, and made introductory remarks at the event.

The committee was formed a year earlier by Richard L. Edwards, chancellor of Rutgers–New Brunswick, who asked White and her team to investigate the subject. “My goal from the beginning of this historical exploration was that we would know, truly, the university we love dearly,” he said. “This record provides us with a fuller knowing of the truth, but it also magnifies the stark difference between who we were at our founding and who we are today.”

White noted that the slave trader Philip Livingston was a founder of Queen’s College—the school, she  went on to say, “that would eventually be named for  another son of a slave-owning family, Henry Rutgers.” The college’s first tutor, Frederick Frelinghuysen, and  its first president, Jacob Hardenbergh, were also  slaveholders. Jacob’s father, Johannes, and, later,  Jacob’s brother Charles owned the famous abolitionist Sojourner Truth and her parents.

1859 Old Queens Watercolor Doolittle and slave document


Scarlet and Black revealed that the Old Queens building was built, in part, by slaves. One of them, known only as Will, was made available for the work, according to a copy of an account book that indicates payment to a New Brunswick doctor for “the labor of his negro.”

Images courtesy of Rutgers Special Collections and University Archives

“Like most early American colleges,” she told the audience, “Rutgers depended on slaves to build its  campuses and serve its students and faculty; it depended on the sale of black people to fund its very existence.” 

The details of that dependence—on slavery and  also on the “erasure,” as one presenter put it, of  Native Americans from the state of New Jersey—were revealed during a series of presentations by a panel of graduate students and faculty involved in assembling the essays appearing in Scarlet and Black. The first presentation, “The Intersecting Histories of Rutgers University and the Lenni-Lenape,” emphasized that the “rising success” of the Dutch and Anglo-Americans who founded Rutgers was attributable to the “erosion” of the Lenni-Lenape from the state of New Jersey as colonists pressured them to sell their land. Student Ethan Smith added a final irony: in 1749, the state’s supreme court filed a suit against the Lenni-Lenape for trespassing on their native soil.

The wealth of Rutgers’ founders and earliest supporters derived not just from the land of native peoples, but also from participation in slavery, as another student presenter, Kendra Boyd, made clear in a presentation titled “Rutgers University and the Political Economy of Slavery in New Jersey.”  When Queen’s College fell on hard financial times—closing its doors from 1795 to 1807 and again from 1816 to 1825—it was old money, much of it accrued through slavery, that allowed those doors to reopen. Members of New Jersey’s colonial aristocracy, among them minister Elias Van Bunschooten, drew from the wealth of their slaveholding families to donate substantial sums to keep Queen’s College afloat.

The evening’s seven presentations were followed by a series of recommendations to the university. Among them was the request that plaques be placed around the campus—and particularly at Old Queens—to denote the presence and work of enslaved African Americans, and that the university institute a walking and digital tour that would illuminate the committee’s findings. As the committee continues to research the role slavery played in Rutgers’ past, other recommendations may arise.  Meanwhile, White noted, it’s crucial for the university to acknowledge its debt to “those deprived of their identities and bodies so Rutgers could be built and sustained.”

“This work shows that we are not afraid to look at ourselves and our early history,” Edwards said. “We are a large public university that is one of the most diverse in the country, and we need to understand our history and not be ashamed of it, but to be able to face it in a forthright way.” ­                                

For more information, visit scarletandblack.rutgers.edu.