When History is Personal: Slavery and Its Legacies at Yale A Conversation Between Christopher M. Rabb, Risë Nelson, and Hope McGrath

Hope McGrath (Research Coordinator for Yale, New Haven, and Connecticut History, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library); Risë Nelson (Member of the Yale and Slavery Working Group and Director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility, Yale Library); and Christopher M. Rabb (YC ’92; genealogist, family historian, and author). Photo by Daniel Vieira
December 4, 2023
Article by Sebastian Ward (YC ’26), Gilder Lehrman Center Student Assistant
Edited by Michelle Zacks, Gilder Lehrman Center Associate Director

“I had to make a decision very early on to distinguish ancestry from heritage,” said Christopher Rabb (YC ’92), a panelist for the recent program, “When History is Personal: Slavery and Its Legacies at Yale.” Explaining the difference, Rabb noted: “This is what I am: my DNA, my biology, my ancestry. But heritage, that which I embrace, helps define me, helps me determine who I am.”

Rabb, a genealogist, historian, and author, was confronted with this problem early on. A descendant of both enslaved people and enslavers, Rabb was in a painful situation regarding his ancestry, as many members of his family were conceived without the consent of their mothers. Members of his family currently are featured in an exhibition at the Yale University Art Gallery (YUAG), Mickalene Thomas/ Portrait of an Unlikely Space. This outstanding, original exhibition is on view until January 7, 2024.

During a public conversation hosted by The House (Yale’s Afro American Cultural Center), Rabb had the opportunity to reflect on how his family members—and Black people in general—have been remembered and forgotten in the institutional history of the university and the nation as a whole. Rabb was joined in conversation by Hope McGrath (researcher for the Yale and Slavery Research Project and Research Coordinator for New Haven, Yale, and Connecticut History at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library). Moderating the discussion was Risë Nelson (member of the Yale and Slavery Working Group and Director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility for Yale Library). After a warm welcome from Timeica E. Bethel-Macaire (Director of the Afro-American Cultural Center and Assistant Dean of Yale College), Gilder Lehrman Center Director David W. Blight (Sterling Professor of History at Yale) provided brief introductory remarks. Blight served as the chair of the Yale and Slavery Working Group and is the primary author of the forthcoming book Yale and Slavery: A History (Yale University Press, February 2024). Keely Orgeman (Seymour H. Knox, Jr., Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at YUAG) shared a description of the exhibit before introducing the program’s speakers.

The program was sponsored by the Art Gallery’s Martin A. Ryerson Lectureship Fund and Yale University’s Afro-American Cultural Center; the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library; Belonging at Yale; the Office of the President; and the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition (GLC) at the MacMillan Center.

Mickalene Thomas/ Portrait of an Unlikely Space, a multi-room installation at YUAG, envisions domestic environments reminiscent of the pre-Emancipation era. As co-curator of the exhibition, Orgeman explained that it is comprised of 45 works of art in total, showcasing 30 small-scale early American portraits portraying Black women, men, and children from the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. These historical pieces are interwoven with works by contemporary Black artists. Designed by the artist Mikalene Thomas, the multi-room installation evokes the aesthetic of the 19th century, with the artwork grouped into four themes: Solitude, Togetherness, Posing, and Holding.

Rabb’s great, great, great grandmother, Christiana Taylor Livingston Williams Freeman, a Black abolitionist and a leader on the underground railroad, is featured within the exhibition next to a portrait of her daughters, Isadora Noe Freeman and Mary Christina Freeman. Describing the exhibition as a profound gift, Rabb praised the Yale University Art Gallery for “honoring the humanity, the presence, the contributions of folks who have been erased intentionally for generations and centuries…and now they are the center of something wonderful,” in the heart of a campus with which he has a deep yet conflicted connections.

Rabb formally got involved in genealogy after he graduated from Yale in 1992. He believes history is very connected to his contemporary reality and surrounding world: “There is no disconnect between the past, the present, and the future.”

Although Rabb’s grandmother told him stories about his family history, he only began to investigate that side further when his grandmother paid Rabb to research their genealogy. The letters she kept between generations of family members and her extensive knowledge of oral history passed down by Black women in their family greatly contributed to Rabb’s project. 

With this information, Rabb was able to connect his Black family to the white Livingston family, who claimed ownership of them. The Livingstons were one of the largest families of enslavers in the Northeast. A letter from Rabb’s great, great aunt to her niece at Smith College at the turn of the century revealed that Christiana’s mother was a woman named Barbara Williams. Barbara was taken from a Livingston plantation in Jamaica, possibly to be given to Philip Henry Livingston as a wedding present.

Christiana, Rabb learned, eventually became a seamstress to the ultra-wealthy of New York. Despite the extended Livingston family’s prestige and wealth, Christiana’s existence and humanity did not become apparent to Rabb through review of the Livingston’s archival materials. Rather, it was the “Black women [in his family] who documented her stories.”

But Christiana’s existence was still impactful. The labor of all who were enslaved created the foundation of our country, and Rabb talked about how crucial Christiana’s value was as a seamstress: “If it wasn’t for her, all these folks would have been walking around in rags.” Black history and American history are not separate categories, Rabb insisted. At many significant junctures of U.S. history, he noted, “she was there…We were there.” For example, she set the table for General Lafayette when he came to visit the Livingston home in 1824. She and her husband were both abolitionists who worked on the underground railroad. In her own home, Christiana received John Brown on his way to Harper’s Ferry. “None of society could function without these invisible people,” Rabb pointed out.

An important theme discussed during the panel was Yale’s historical connections to slavery. Hope McGrath explained that the Livingston family was prominent in colonial New York, and as such left a well-documented archival record. Philip Livingston financed the first endowed professorship at Yale, the Livingston Professorship in Divinity, established in 1756 through a donation of 28 pounds and 12 shillings in honor of four of Livingston’s six sons having attended the college. One of the sons, Philip Livingston, Jr., was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, along with three other Yale alumni. Livingston’s name is inscribed in a gateway in Branford College.

At the same time, the Livingston family were human traffickers who financed vessels involved in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, disembarking over 500 Africans to New York to be enslaved during the colonial period. McGrath pointed out that all four of the Yale alumni signers of the Declaration were enslavers. By examining Yale probate records, the Yale and Slavery Research Project identified about 200 people who were enslaved by “Yale’s early leaders: donors, rectors, and trustees.” McGrath emphasized that such research is made possible through not only through the existence of voluminous records within formal archives but also because “generations of men and women have kept the stories alive. They’ve kept the documents, they’ve kept the receipts, and they’ve kept the oral histories.”

While some people might characterize these details as being ancient history, Risë Nelson observed, these histories are “literally etched into the buildings…and embedded into the histories and foundations of this place,” and possess great relevance for the present and the future.

In addition to the upcoming release of the book Yale and Slavery: A History, Nelson noted, the University also will release a website to help the community engage with the content, along with offering scholarships, and giving honorary degrees to abolitionists. Yale is also sponsoring an exhibit at the New Haven Museum. After announcing some of the university’s initial responses to the Yale and Slavery research project, Nelson invited the panelists to reflect on what else Yale should do to reconcile the problematic aspects of its legacy with its current values, missions, and goals.

Rabb, a believer in reparations, gave a simple answer. He suggested that providing $1 billion to be managed by an “independent, autonomous entity” with the goal of addressing the harmful parts of history that Yale contributed to would be a good starting point, considering Yale’s $40 billion endowment is mingled with funds that sustained the system of slavery. Rabb finished his answer saying, “You know when we have gotten to the promised land when there are no disparities.”

In her response to the question, McGrath began by quoting James Baldwin: “The past will remain horrible for exactly as long as we refuse to assess it honestly.” McGrath continued by pointing out that in addition to Yale’s historical connections to slavery, there are many additional elements of Yale’s history that have contributed to contemporary disparities and need to be addressed. These include welfare reform, Reaganomics, deindustrialization, and urban renewal, to name a few. Her desire, McGrath concluded, is that the university will create a democratic process that allows for “broad discussion and broad input into whatever the response is.”

The event, in combination with exhibition’s artwork, offer a profound perspective that has been hiding in plain sight for centuries. It is the perspective of people who were brutally wronged and who never received repayment. A $1 billion contribution to an autonomous entity is a start. However, the reflections shared in this program and the artwork and text of the exhibit all lend support to the fundamental truth that the plight of all marginalized people is systemic in nature, and that it will cost far more than $1 billion to reach equality. 

For more information about the exhibit Mickalene Thomas/ Portrait of an Unlikely Space, visit: https://artgallery.yale.edu/exhibitions/exhibition/mickalene-thomas-portrait-unlikely-space

View a recording of the program: