What’s in a Name? The Namesake of Yale Drive

Yale Center for British Art    This painting commemorates the signing of the marriage contract that sealed the union of Elihu Yale’s daughter Anne to James Cavendish. Yale sits in the center with his pipe. William Cavendish, second Duke of Devonshire, sit on Yale’s right and his younger brother James, the betrothed, on Yale’s left. An attorney identified as Tunsdale stands on the painting’s left.

A recent successful movement changed the name of a school named for a California governor who advocated slavery: Henry Huntly Haight. A letter in this week’s Alameda Sun (“Street names bear investigation”) suggests that researchers (“social justice warriors”) in the letter writer’s words turn to other places in Alameda with the names of personalities involved in slavery. Alameda has a street in the Fernside neighborhood that certainly qualifies for such research: Yale Drive.

In 2017 Yale University erased the name of John Calhoun, Class of 1804, from a college on its campus. Why expunge the memory of a Yale alumnus and a man history remembers — along with Henry Clay Sr. and Daniel Webster — as a member of the Great Triumvirate? The New York Times has a simple explanation: Calhoun advocated slavery.

Not so fast. Calhoun’s detractors at Yale fail to mention — as the university has done for almost 300 years — that the University’s namesake, Elihu Yale, did much more than advocate slavery: he forced black human beings onto ships that transported them into lives as slaves. 

Yale profited handsomely from the slave trade. In a story he wrote for Yale University’s digital histories, Joseph Yannielli tells us that Yale worked as an official for the East India Company in Madras, India — present-day Chennai. Yale presided over the company’s slave trade, which Yannielli writes was “larger … than its Atlantic counterpart.” Yale served on the governing council at Fort St. George on the Madras coast and participated in buying hundreds of slaves and shipping them to the English colony on Saint Helena, an island in the South Atlantic.

Yale enforced a rule that required that the company send a minimum of 10 slaves sent on every ship bound for Europe, likely for “unloading” at Saint Helena. On two separate occasions, Yale sentenced “black Criminalls” accused of burglary to suffer whipping, branding and foreign enslavement.

Yale probably did not own any of these people. However, Yannielli writes that the majority were the property of the East India Company and Yale “certainly profited both directly and indirectly from their sale.”

A painting depicted on this page shows how proud Yale and his friends were of owning slaves. The young African man on the right in the painting is not only wearing a uniform — called a livery —  that portrays he is “owned,” but a slave collar complete with a lock as well. Yale commissioned at least one other painting that portrayed him with his “servant.”

A pair of streets next to Yale Drive — Harvard and Cambridge drives — also have names with ties to slavery. Two other neighboring streets — Gibbons and Cornell drives — bear the names of Quakers, a religion that spearheaded the abolitionist movement. And let’s not forget Yale’s latest bogeyman, John Calhoun, and his connection to Calhoun Street here. The Sun will unfold these stories in upcoming editions.

The painting’s lower right corner depicts a young African male wearing a slave collar quietly waiting to do their bidding. Yale commissioned an unknown artist to do this painting in 1704.