Columbia University History Tour Initiative: Just Historiography and Remembering the Fading Language of Columbia University

The CU History Tour Initiative was launched on October 8, Indigenous Peoples’ Day. The mobile app is available through the Apple Store here. For further reading, please visit the website of the Initiative, available here.

The Columbia University History Tour Initiative aims to address the forgotten history of the “greatest University, in the greatest city in the world.” With the Columbia name as the centerpoint, the Initiative presents narratives of slavery, oppression, and violence at the university, while preserving the stories of resistance, perseverance, and social change on campus. The Initiative is trifold in composition—mobile application, a website, and the tour itself. The two digital components, particularly the mobile application, facilitate the presentation of the aforesaid histories.

For many years, various students of color at Columbia have advocated for projects like this Initiative, as many deemed the University’s presentation of its past to be partial and incomplete. The undergraduate creators of the tour were able to carry out this project in keeping with these preceding students’ vision of just historiography thanks to the support of organizations and resources that past members of this university lacked.

The Columbia University and Slavery project is one of such resources that helped us bring the tour initiative to life. The project began in 2015 when revisionist historian and Columbia professor Eric Foner started teaching an undergraduate seminar on the University’s historical connections to the institution of slavery. The notion of just historiography—the idea of increasing justice through the writing of history—cannot be separated from the CU & Slavery project; it also lies at the core of the tour initiative.

Justice is conceived with the recognition of injustice. The implicit injustice of the extant, popular historiography of Columbia rests with the fact that some people—their names, words, and stories—remain dormant, in archival silence, while others reach the public with ease. Thus, the tour is designed to present what wasn’t remembered, not what should be remembered.

The timeline of histories within the tour is broad in scope, as what gets to be remembered, which dictates what does not, spans centuries. Ranging from 1524 to 1996, the tour begins with the first recorded contact between the Lenni-Lenape and Europeans and ends with the Student Hunger Strike for Ethnic Studies at Columbia. The Lenape Plaque, an on-campus memorial that recognizes the Lenni-Lenape, is the first stop on the tour for a number of reasons.

Stories of expansion often eclipse the history of displacement at Columbia, and the Lenni-Lenape were the first people to be displaced on the land that the university occupies. Manhattan, the richest borough in New York, derives its renowned name from Manahatta, the Lenni-Lenape’s word for the island, which translates to “hilly island.” The Hudson River—originally called Shatemuc—is named after Henry Hudson, who began colonizing Lower Manahatta in the early seventeenth century. In 1609 Robert Juet, one of Hudson’s crewmates, first used the word Manahatta in his logbook to describe the land. The history of the Lenni-Lenape underlies the nomenclatural history of New York further: Wall Street, the center of American finance, got its name from a physical wall that the Dutch had built in lower Manahatta in the early seventeenth century to keep the Lenni-Lenape out of the land they stole. When this history is taken into consideration, the fact that New York served as the first capital of the U.S. government—George Washington was sworn in as the nation’s first president on Wall Street—appears in a different light.

The blatant injustice in the case of the Lenni-Lenape lies in the fact that they do not exist within the popular memory of Columbia, New York, and America. We can begin the process of justice by remembering the Lenni-Lenape, who still exist today, and who were integral to the founding of this university, city, and nation. Language justice, in this sense, becomes possible through the act of remembering—through awakening the dormant words that lie under a bed of white supremacy, institutional misogyny, and capitalist hegemony.

Within the tour, the story of the Lenni-Lenape and the Lenape Plaque is just one realm in which the Columbia community can aim for language justice through remembering forgotten or nearly-forgotten words. For example, our collective amnesia points to Wallach Hall, one of the undergraduate first-year dormitories originally named Livingston Hall, which celebrated the legacy of Robert Livingston, a Founding Father, and the Livingston family—a clan of socio-political elites that produced the most active slave-traders in New York. Another forgotten feature of Columbia is the Soph Show, an undergraduate tradition of annual performances by sophomores that featured blackface minstrelsy and is effectively nonexistent in University archives. Institutional memory also tends to omit or overlook the Dunning School, the notorious group of Reconstruction historians inspired by Columbia professor William Dunning. The Dunning School dominated national academia in the twentieth century by justifying Jim Crow as a necessary system for the coexistence of Black and white Americans. With a genial, charismatic professor as their mentor and educator, the Dunning School surpassed the boundaries of American academia, shaped international perspectives on American history, and permeated the public sphere through Dunningite interpretations in popular culture like David Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation.”

The list, of course, does not end there. There’s much that can be remembered, perhaps even too much. Thus, I contend that justice is an ideal; perfect justice cannot be achieved and we’ll never know how to achieve it to its full extent. Nevertheless our tour is an attempt to strive toward justice.

Upon remembering the troubled past of this university, I hope we can alter our actions accordingly and spark change in the service of language justice. The Burgess professorship of political science at Columbia, for example, should be renamed, as its name Burgess celebrates the legacy of John W. Burgess. Apart from creating political science as a legitimate discipline in America, Burgess was a Confederate-apologist predecessor and professor of William Dunning who prevented the education of Black, Jewish, and female students at Columbia. Another stark example arises with Columbia’s role in displacing the residents of New York. Columbia’s history of displacement, excluding the history of the Lenni-Lenape, is long and proven. Nicholas Murray Butler’s expansion plan for the University, for example, was influenced by a letter sent to him in 1931 by John J. Coss, founder of the famed Core Curriculum of Columbia. The letter enclosed a map titled “Distribution of Negro in Harlem,” which identified the expanding real estate of Black residents as a reason for Columbia to purchase and control their property. The 1968 student protests at the university illustrate how the history of displacement continued throughout the twentieth century. These histories remain acutely relevant today as Columbia is still expanding enormously under Lee Bollinger.

That is why I hope this Initiative, though imperfect, survives and grows through more generations of Columbia students. The three undergraduates who operate the Initiative ran into a number of obstacles, technical and archival, throughout the process of creating the app, website, and tour. We fought with the App Store after it rejected the app twice in a week. We scrambled to polish every citation of the tour text when we later realized footnotes couldn’t be incorporated cleanly into the current version of the app. These instances prove the undeniable fact that, like any endeavor to enact justice, this Initiative requires constant revision, retrospection, and reflection.

Thus, my ultimate hope is that as more people join this project, this tour will become a better, more just, more valuable resource for all members of the university community as they navigate the space this institution occupies today. I hope that as this institution expands its history, its constituents will remember its troubled past through continued reflection and act upon such reflections to alter their actions. I hope that Columbia will create an environment that is hospitable and inspiring for all, always aiming toward justice, pluralism, and intersectionality.

By Tommy Song, Columbia University undergraduate student

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