In 1831, Simeon Jocelyn thought New Haven would be the perfect place to start a college for educating negroes. New Haven disagreed.
At that time, there were many flashpoints in the debate over the future of slavery. One of them dealt with whether free black men should seek an education. The supporters of slavery hated the idea of black men receiving an education as it would inspire them to seek greater power. Jocelyn, a New Haven minister at a black church and printmaker, thought otherwise.
New Haven, home to Yale and countless academics, was the perfect place for a school, he thought, and he bought property to establish a college. Jocelyn, William Lloyd Garrison and Arthur Tappan brought the idea to the First Annual Convention of the People of Colour, a gathering of black activist leaders in Pennsylvania in 1831.
The minutes of the Congress explain how the men laid out their plans:
The plan proposed is, that said College is estimated to cost about $20.000, to be erected at New Haven, and established on the Manual Labour System, by which, in connection with a scientific education, they may also obtain a useful Mechanical or Agricultural profession, and, (they farther report, having received information,) that a benevolent individual has offered to subscribe $1,000 towards this object, provided a further sum of $19,000 can be obtained in one year.
The Congress debated the idea and asked, why New Haven?
1. The site is healthy and beautiful.
2. Its inhabitants are friendly, pious, generous, and humane.
3. Its laws are salutary and protecting to all, without regard to complexion.
4. Boarding is cheap and provisions are good.
5. The situation is as central as any other that can be obtained with the same advantages.
6. The town of New Haven carries on an extensive West India trade, and many of the wealthy coloured residents in the Islands would no doubt send their sons there to be educated, and thus a fresh tie of friendship would be formed, which might be productive of much real good in the end.
And, last, though not least, the classic fame of New Haven is well known, wherever Arts or Sciences have made their appearance.
Turns out, New Haven wasn’t exactly as represented – especially with regard to salutary laws protecting all without regard to complexion.
The reaction against the idea was instantaneous. The city’s mayor and aldermen called a town meeting for September 10, 1831 to outlaw a school for negroes.
The newspapers were full of outrage at the idea of black students lowering the morals of the city and intermixing with white society -- women in particular.
“Who would think of locating a School or College in a town where forty-nine-fiftieths of the inhabitants are against the project?" one writer asked.
One newspaper suggested that if a college was needed, it should be located in Cornwall where there had been an earlier institution established for educating American Indians:
"Cornwall possesses many advantages for such an institution, over other places; and it is not among the least of them, that the ladies of that town readily give themselves, better for worse, and worse for better, to the colored gentlemen."
Largely unspoken were the many ties Yale University had to the moneyed families of the South who surely would have resisted educating their children in a city where black students were also welcomed to an education.
Despite a strong speech by Roger Sherman Baldwin, of Amistad fame, the town meeting rejected the college overwhelmingly.
In the days after the town meeting, protesters turned up the homes of both Tappan and Jocelyn. Jocelyn had to give up his ministry. And the stage was set for future battles in Connecticut over the equal treatment of all races.