Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is simultaneously one of the most prestigious modern institutions of higher learning and is the oldest technological research university in the English-speaking world. Yet many are unaware that the initial funding of the Institute was established through centuries of forced labor and slavery.
In 1824, Amos Eaton, today considered the founder of modern scientific prospectus in education, co-founded the Rensselaer School with Stephen Van Rensselaer III, a slave-owner and patron of the Manor of Rensselaerswyck of the Dutch West India Trading Company. According to the First Census of the United States, it was noted that Van Rensselaer owned 15 slaves on his estate in 1790. That number does not include slaves which were used by tenants of Van Rensselaer’s many estates which contributed directly to Van Rensselaer’s wealth.
Van Rensselaer freed all slaves on the Rensselaerswyck Manor by 1827 in compliance with the Gradual Emancipation Act, but prior to 1827 it is noted in Scarlet and Black, a book about slavery and dispossession in the history of Rutger’s University by Fuentes and White, that “the Manor of Rensselaerswyck relied on slave labor, and the family owned many slaves. Stephen Van Rensselaer inherited Rensselaerswyck in 1785 and became one of the wealthiest Americans of his era.”
However, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute never formally owned or traded slaves. The Folsom Library Special Collections Archive was contacted and we received the following response:
“We are unaware of any information in the Institute Archives, or elsewhere, that documents a connection between the Institute and slavery. Stephen Van Rensselaer did not provide an endowment for Rensselaer School; rather he contributed funds for the initial three years of the school and thereafter contributed about one-half the cost of the school’s maintenance until his death in 1839. He provided the initial concept of providing education “…for the purposes of instructing persons, who may choose to apply themselves, in the application of science to the common purposes of life.” He also placed the school on a sound legal footing. After Stephen Van Rensselaer’s death the school was supported by the tuition of its pupils.”
Similar histories encompass many of America’s oldest institutions of higher learning, including Harvard, Georgetown, and Rutgers University. In 2016, nearly two centuries after Georgetown profited from the sale of nearly 300 slaves, the university renamed two buildings on its campus, including one after a former slave at the university. Georgetown also began offering scholarships to descendants and a similar “admissions edge” to what the university currently offers to legacy students. That same year, Rutgers University compiled new research on its history involving slavery, and published a book named Scarlet and Black to mirror the university’s 250th anniversary. Stephen Van Rensselaer was also named as a donor at Rutgers, whose tie to slavery was noted in the report.
Regardless of its initial inception, however, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has made great strides since its founding in 1824 with an initial dowry built upon slave labor. Rensselaer graduated Garnet Douglass Baltimore in 1881, who was later inducted into the Rensselaer Alumni Hall of Fame and received a lecture series at the Institute in 1990 in his honor. In addition, Rensselaer is the first top-ranked technological research university led by an African-American woman president, Shirley Ann Jackson.
Although 193 years have passed since then, only three percent of Rensselaer’s current student population was comprised of African Americans in 2016, while 59 percent were non-hispanic whites. Little is also done to inform the campus community of Rensselaer’s early history, including the Rensselaerwyck Manor whose early history is directly tied to slave labor and the founding of the Institute.