Browse Exhibits (15 total)

Teaching Race Science at the College of Physicians and Surgeons

This exhibit on Columbia University and slavery explores the intersection of science and racism as it was embedded in the academic discourse at Columbia University and the College of Physicians & Surgeons (P&S). In the nineteenth century, racist scientific beliefs were researched, written about, and taught in the classrooms at Columbia, as commonplace medical knowledge. This exhibit traces the changing contexts in which racial science was taught and debated, highlighting three distinct periods. This exhibit is based on lecture notes of P&S students in 1812-13 and 1829-32, and textbooks used in the late 1890s and early 1900s. 

Runaway Slave Advertisements Submitted by Columbia College Students and Affiliates

From the founding King's College Class of 1760 to Class of 1805, 28 King's College and Columbia students and affiliates submitted 43 advertisements advertising fugitives or selling enslaved human beings. 


Livingston Brothels: Columbia and Profits from Black Bodies

This digital project demonstrates the ways in which the Livingston family, and by extension Columbia, profited off of the bodies of women, especially women of color through brothel ownership. It begins with a timeline of the Livingston family's ownership of brothels throughout New York City from 1820-1859. Through details through census records, assault reports, and the city directory it then goes on to detail the erased black bodies that lived in these brothels and the ways in which these brothels constituted sites of violence for the women and men living there.



A Columbia Family: The Codwise Family

So often, the history of slavery is thought to exist peripheral to the history of America, its universities, and its families. And when slavery is discussed in terms of its being central to these histories, such a discussion is usually limited to those Americans who lived south of the Mason-Dixon line. And even when this is not the case - when slavery is explored not as a sectional phenomena, but one that spanned and linked both North and South - rarely does its mention go beyond the territorial boundaries of the United States. The Codwise family, with members in New York, Michigan, Alabama, Georgia, and St. Croix, offers up incontrovertible proof that Columbia’s connection to slavery must be understood in both a transectional and transnational context.


Extracurriculars & Racism on Columbia's Campus

Over the last few years, universities nationwide have begun to unearth their rocky relationships with slavery and racial discrimination. As with many of these universities, Columbia University has been forced to come to terms with the practices that took place on its campuses for decades. When Columbia was founded, it mainly catered to the New York-based wealthy, white and Episcopalian population. As it began to expand, however, students from different backgrounds arrived on campus. Although small in number, beginning in the early twentieth century African American students began to matriculate at Columbia. Given the continued discrimination against blacks that would only grow stronger as the 1900s progressed, the Columbia community, which was very interested in maintaining its status as a university for wealthy whites, was not a place that the black students could easily call home.

Daily discrimination against black students is clear when looking at the extracurricular clubs, groups and activities of the Columbia community. Many Columbia-sponsored events during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were also clearly anti-black. These actions perpetuated discrimination against blacks on campus as well as within New York City boundaries, contributing to a broad acceptance of racist ideas and actions that continued far into the twentieth century.

Given the above, this project looks to determine the extent to which Columbia’s extracurricular clubs helped to further the discrimination against black students up until the 1930s and how black students consequently dealt with that discrimination.

It should be noted that this project spells out the derogatory terms used by these groups and during on-campus events and activities by way of preserving their original impact and to maintain historical accuracy.

The Columbian League: The Life of George Edmund Haynes and the National Urban League

The National Urban League is the oldest and largest community-based, non-partisan, civil rights organization advocating on behalf of African Americans and against racial discrimination in the United States. One of its founders, George Edmund Haynes, created the League's precursor committee and organization at the New York School of Philanthropy (now the Columbia School of Social Work) where he was taking a minor to complete his Ph.D at Columbia University. Haynes was the first African American to earn a doctorate degree at Columbia and published his dissertation, "The Negro at Work in New York City" with Columbia University Press. 

This exhibit follows the semi-chronological structure of Haynes's early life, his enrollment in Columbia and the New York School of Philanthropy, and his co-founding of the National Urban League. This study attempts to resurface Haynes's relatively underreported life and contributions to civil rights, as well as to delineate the connections between Columbia University, the early forms of Columbia's School of Social Work, and the formation and early efforts of the National Urban League. 

Ultimately, this exhibit demonstrates that the philanthropic and sociological skills Haynes learned at Columbia and the School of Philanthropy pushed him to establish an organization that used sociological research to train black social workers and effectively address the issues facing African Americans through interracial cooperation since the beginning of the Great Migration. 

Due to time constraints and a lack of available resources, this study resembles much more of an overview than an in depth analysis of Haynes's connections to Columbia. You will find special collections and resources in the "Sources and Suggested Readings" section of this exhibit that will point scholars toward documents and manuscripts that were geographically out of reach for this project.

Further research is necessary to understand Columbia's relationship to the National Urban League not only for personal interest, but to bolster the respect due to Haynes and his colleagues by Columbia University, especially the School of Social Work. Students and activists should at least be aware of Haynes's attendence at the University and understand how he used the skills he learned as a foundation for his work in civil rights. Other recommendations may include the renaming of certain facilities to honor Haynes, the establishment of a scholarship in his name, or any other tangible recognition of his groundbreaking work. 

John W. Burgess: An "Apostle of Reaction" on the Hudson Shore

John William Burgess was a seminal figure in the history of Columbia University and in the modern disciplines of political science and history. In 1880, Burgess founded the Columbia School of Political Science, the forebear of that university’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences; he spent much of the rest his life serving as dean of that same school and conducting extensive scholarship.

But Burgess’ contributions, though significant, cannot be neatly categorized. Drawing on his experiences at German universities, and in the antebellum and postbellum South, Burgess promoted a vision of the university that was clouded by white supremacy, and espoused an antediluvian view of Reconstruction and race relations. Expansion of Columbia was predicated on the exclusion of African-Americans, women, Jews, and immigrants; his work, meanwhile, provided intellectual support for segregation and imperialism.

The 1924 Cross Burning

Just after midnight on the morning of April 3, 1924, several cars drove onto the campus of Columbia University and parked on 116th St, a then functioning road that is now a pedestrian thoroughfare. Somewhere from twelve to twenty-five men dressed in civilian clothes stepped out of the cars and scattered in all directions across the campus’s south field. New York City had just experienced a cold snap, and a day earlier a storm had blanketed the campus with a sheet of snow, but these would not be the tranquil hours of a cool spring night.  A few hundred feet away a man named Frederick W. Wells had retired to his dorm room in Furnald Hall. Wells was a twenty-four-year-old, black law student from Tennessee, and his presence in the dormitory was notable; he was the first black student in Columbia on-campus housing during the academic year. 

His room was number 528, on the west side of the building facing Broadway, so he was likely unaware of the activity that was unfolding. Outside, the men had returned, having traded their street clothes for the white robes and hoods of the Ku Klux Klan. The men marched in formation to the center of the snow-covered field carrying a seven-foot-tall wooden cross, wrapped in cloth and doused with kerosene. There, just north of the college’s baseball diamond, and a stone’s throw from the University’s regal statue of Thomas Jefferson, they planted the cross in the ground, and lit it on fire. As it burned, the flames could be seen from apartment buildings blocks away, and inside Furnald, concerned students banged on Wells’s door, while others ran through the halls shouting, “Down with the Negro,” and “Put the nigger out.”  In the days following, Wells received two death threats in anonymous letters signed by the Klan. 

From a historical perspective, one of the most interesting aspects of the cross burning is the way that different actors responded to it. Understanding the ways that contemporary figures addressed the situation reveals a nation - and a campus - divided over how it would come to terms with black people inhabiting white spaces. It's an issue that remains unresolved.

In thinking about how the incident evolved not only locally but nationally, articles from newspapers across the country provide a fascinating snapshot of racial tensions in the 1920s, at a moment when the Ku Klux Klan was at the height of its popularity, and millions of black people where leaving rural areas in the south for the urban centers of the north as part of the Great Migration. This exhibit contains a few examples of interesting articles that can serve as a window into regional politics.

Below is a link to a visual aid that represents the national distribution of news reports. These seelctions are just a few example of the actual body of articles available, which number in the hundreds, and were printed in nearly every state in the union.


View Story Map


Please note that the Story Map website doesn’t allow viewers to zoom in on the individual articles. Those intersted in reading the text of the documents can get a closer look here.


Columbia's Insistent Problems: Protestant Ethics, World War I, and Contemporary Civilization

Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization, the centerpieces of Columbia’s Core Curriculum, respectively consist of introductions to the Western canons of literature and philosophy. Contrary to its name, “Contemporary Civilization,” known colloquially as CC, does not pertain to contemporary political dilemmas, at least not directly. Starting their philosophical undertaking in classical antiquity, students taking CC end their inquiry in the twentieth century. Needless to say, the course has gaps, omissions, simplifications, and compromises of every kind, and it spends most of its yearlong duration on texts written before King’s College royal charter in 1754. While the present iteration of this unifying course lacks a clear connection to contemporary issues, the inaugural sections of CC, which began in September of 1919, examined primarily the fifty years preceding its founding. Novel and untested, CC intended to prepare Columbian men to participate in the contemporary American political economy.

A product of the end of World War I, the Core Curriculum’s first course claimed a class called “War Issues,” which educated future U.S. Army officers on the social and political underpinnings of the Great War, as an ancestor. The history and philosophy faculty, as well as Columbia’s administration, eager to preserve the homogeneity of their white Anglo-Saxon Protestant school as more Jewish students enrolled during and after the war, devised a curriculum that inculcated the attendant values: pride in agricultural and industrial prowess laden with a clear sense of Western superiority. CC emerged in a post-war milieu of anti-Semitism and uncertainty about the future of empire. These two attitudes bolstered one another and flourished among faculty and administrators. They devised a course focused on individual traits and their consequences for nationalism and imperialism. Its principle sections consisted of:

  1. The physical world, which man has to live in and use.
  2. The chief racial and cultural groups.
  3. The chief human traits which must be considered if man is to know himself and direct his own activity.
  4. The unique features of the life of the western world of today—intellectual, economic, political—displayed in contrast with the characteristic features of the civilization of earlier days.
  5. The history during recent times of the countries now linked in close international relations.
  6. The insistent problems these nations must face, internal and international. Among these problems are: How to produce many goods cheaply and at the same time humanely; how to determine the just division of industrial earnings; how to achieve a legal and political order which will be at once responsive to a changing social opinion and sufficiently stable to permit the completion of large cooperative enterprises; how to eliminate waste, human and material; how to preserve national unity and individual strength, yet enjoy the benefits of international cooperation; how to devise an educational system advantageous commercially and culturally and productive of individual profit and social benefit. [1]

White Euro-American hegemony appeared as the central premise and conclusion of the new course in contemporary civilization. This exhibit examines CC’s creation in the context of World War I and challenges to WASP’s superiority. The architectural histories of Morningside Heights and Columbia’s campus, as well as Columbia’s educational role in World War I, contextualize CC’s racist and imperialist ideologies. The course made little to no mention of American slavery, reconstruction, and imperialism and promoted American exceptionalism. The following sections tell how the actions of a few men defined a cornerstone of the Columbia experience.

[1] Herbert Hawkes, “A College Course on Peace Issues,” Educational Review 58 (1919): 147-8.

The Birth of a Nation and Columbia University

This exhibit explores the reception of The Birth of a Nation at Columbia and its relationship to the campus' racial climate.