Vassar and Slavery

In recent years many institutions of higher learning in the United States have looked closely at their history to better understand their relationship with slavery.1

At Vassar, no published article or book has focused substantively on this topic, although there is an extensive bibliography on the history of the school. One might be tempted to think that since Vassar was founded in 1861, well past the date when slavery was outlawed in the state of New York (1827), there is no real story to tell. Yet even a quick glance at online and published sources about Vassar reveals a number of references to slavery and enslaved people. Still, the references are scattered in various pieces, with little explanation. The time has come to recover and reexamine these references and explore further their context and meaning. In addition, we can begin to investigate other sources to help us understand how the issue of slavery relates to the history of the College.


A 19th-century poster of Vassar. This feature is a large engraving of the building and the surrounding woodlands. The building is a large multiple story stone structure. It has the words "Vassar Female College" in large type, and then additional text with the names of all the trustees and the location of the College.


When Matthew Vassar in the late 1850s began to think seriously about endowing a college for women, slavery was a contentious issue in American life and had been so for many years.

People living in New York’s Hudson Valley would have been aware of the national tensions and some of them would have had direct interactions with the system of slavery, and indeed with enslaved people or formerly enslaved people. There was a long history of slavery in New York; scholars now believe its chronological boundaries extend from 1525 until the years of the Civil War. 2 Most enslaved people in the state lived in and around New York City, but already by 1790, 2,300 people of color, 1,856 of whom were enslaved, lived in Dutchess County. Most engaged in farm work in isolated settings along the Hudson River and created what Michael Groth calls a culture of “resistant accommodation,” not accepting but also not directly challenging the existing order. 3 The process by which enslaved people in New York gained their freedom unfolded gradually, over decades, and it was not until 1827 that full emancipation was granted in the state. Even then, however, children born of enslaved people before this year still could be indentured. In fact there was a continuing presence of enslaved people in New York which included those living outside the state who visited with their enslavers, and those who traveled on ships that temporarily docked in New York. 4 Additionally, a number of freedom-seekers (fugitives from slavery) appear to have settled in Dutchess County.5

A 19th-century painting of people on a doc unloading cargo.

Hidden HistorySlavery in the Hudson Valley?

Vassar’s Hidden History video series examines aspects of U.S. history that have been untaught, modified, or erased. It sheds light on historical injustices that are implicated in current disparities in everything from health and financial outcomes to criminal justice.

The people who gathered in Poughkeepsie in the 1860s to embark on the educational enterprise that would become Vassar College largely came from the North, and had similarities of class, religion, education, and race; however, it would be inaccurate to think that they were homogeneous in their views regarding slavery. Many of Vassar’s leaders were Baptists, a denomination that nationally reflected a kaleidoscope of opinion on slavery. 6 In the years immediately following Vassar’s founding, a range of opinions was apparent among people connected with the school: abolitionist, pro-slavery, and ideas in between. For some the stories are complicated, and for some they are unclear. Nevertheless, episodes in Vassar’s early history suggest a narrative that is substantially more complex than has been traditionally understood. In a sense, people associated with early Vassar seem to have reflected views prevalent in American society at large. This article examines the founder, the first presidents, the charter trustees, and early faculty and students in the period up to 1865, though brief attention is given to the following years.


A painting of a person in 19th-century male formal wear—black coat, black pants, and a cane—standing in front of an enormous pillar and a red curtain, pointing to a large brick building in the background.

The Founder

A monochrome engraving of Matthew Vassar, a person with glasses and short dark hair

FounderMatthew Vassar

  • Lived: 1792–1868
  • Position: Probably abolitionist. Details are vague, but Vassar is known to have expressed outrage at slavery, contributed funds to freeing enslaved people, and (perhaps immodestly) regarded Vassar College as an achievement that established him as an emancipist comparable to Abraham Lincoln.
Enslaver Abolitionist Probably Abolitionist

Little has been written about Matthew Vassar and slavery, but there are incidents in his life that relate to this topic. 1 In 1824 for instance, when the Dutchess County Colonization Society (DCCS) was formed, Vassar served as its Recording Secretary, a prominent role. Like the American Colonization Society (ACS) and other regional and local colonization societies, the DCCS promoted the migration of both freeborn and emancipated African Americans to the colony of Liberia in Africa. In an address to the inhabitants of Dutchess County at the time of its founding, the president of the DCCS declared it to be a “tremendous evil” that nearly two million African Americans were in “a state of moral and civil degradation” as either “slaves or degraded freemen.” This contradicted both the Declaration of Independence and scripture, he said, and the work of colonization would be a “humane and philanthropic design.” 8 The colonization movement appealed to “different people for different reasons,” including some pro-slavery politicians, some gradual abolitionists, and some social reformers. 9 Most African Americans and abolitionists, however, opposed it. Although about 10,500 settled in Liberia in the antebellum period, the hoped-for goals of the colonization societies were never achieved. One scholar has stated that “colonization was more of an intellectual movement for moderately anti slavery whites than a practical option for free blacks.” 10 We know that within the DCCS were members who worked to end slavery, had manumitted slaves, and sold land to free blacks. 11 Unfortunately few records survive of the DCCS and little has been written about it or Matthew Vassar’s involvement.

“It is in vain to Educate Womans power of thought and then limit the operation—Education and Liberty walk hand in hand;”

Matthew Vassar

Another episode in Matthew Vassar’s life that relates to slavery and enslaved persons took place in the wake of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. In 1851 John Bolding, a freedom-seeker from South Carolina who had been living for several years in Poughkeepsie and working as a tailor on Main Street, was recognized by a visitor to the city, who in turn alerted his previous owner, Robert Anderson. Bolding was apprehended by a U.S. Marshal and sent to New York City, where a trial took place to establish his status. Anderson won the trial, but afterward offered to sell Bolding to his friends and supporters in Poughkeepsie if sufficient funds could be raised. A community-wide fundraising effort was held, and Matthew Vassar was one of the donors who helped secure $1,109. Bolding was given his freedom and returned to Poughkeepsie, where he lived and worked until his death in 1876. 12

Finally it’s worth noting that some years later, in 1864, Matthew Vassar jotted in the privacy of his diary two telling notes: 1) “It is in vain to Educate Womans power of thought and then limit the operation—Education and Liberty walk hand in hand;” and 2) about the same time, “The founder of Vassar College and President Lincoln—Two Noble Emancipists—one of Woman—The Negro—” 13 Taken together, and in view of his earlier activities, it seems the founder had some degree of sympathy with antebellum efforts to promote the freedom of African Americans in Poughkeepsie and beyond, but the details of his thinking are not entirely clear.

First Presidents

A side-by-side arrangement of two photos. On the left, a black and white photo of Milo Jewett, a person with glasses, short white hair, an enormous white beard but no mustache, and a black jacket. On the right, a black and white photo of John H. Raymond, a person with glasses, short white hair, a large white beard, and a black jacket and bowtie.

First Presidents

A black and white photo of Milo Jewett, a person with short white hair, an enormous white beard, and a black jacket.

First PresidentMilo Jewett

  • Lived: 1808–1882
  • President: 1861–1864
  • Position: It’s complicated. While living in the South, Milo Jewett owned slaves and enslaved at least seven people. However, he appears to have been troubled by slavery and offered freedom to anyone who came with him when he moved north.
Enslaver Abolitionist It’s Complicated

Milo Jewett

The story of Milo Jewett—the College’s first president, from 1861–1864—as it relates to slavery is complicated. One must begin by noting that like Matthew Vassar, Jewett was involved in colonization activities as a young man. In 1833, while a student at Andover Theological Seminary, he signed a resolution of students to the American Colonization Society, stating that within six months they would raise funds to purchase the freedom of at least 100 slaves. 14 Andover at this time was “the training ground for the missionary-minded men…who would serve as agents and officers of the Colonization Society.” For many northern evangelicals, missionary work and colonization were seen as two sides of the same coin. 15

After graduating from Andover and teaching for a few years at Marietta College in Ohio, Jewett in 1838 moved to Marion, Alabama, where he opened Judson Female Institute, a school for young women. Over the course of more than sixteen years, he oversaw the growth of the campus, the expansion of the faculty and the student body, and the development of a progressive academic curriculum. 16 Judson was connected to the Baptist church and emerged as an important institution of the South. In this location, slavery was integral to the society, and we know that Jewett himself at this time lived with and enslaved several people. In 1850, it is recorded that he enslaved seven persons. We do not know their names, though four were identified as female and three as male. They ranged in age from four to thirty-two. 17

In 1855 Jewett left Judson, likely for a variety of reasons, but as one source has noted, “as a northerner he may have become increasingly uncomfortable in Alabama,” 18 and as another has observed, there was “increasing animosity in the community over his position on slavery.” 19 So great was the animosity that one local lawyer called him a “vile Abolition scoundrel” who should be hung “for secret manoeuvering with our slaves.” 20 We know that when Jewett moved with his family to Poughkeepsie, he offered freedom to any of the people he had enslaved who chose to accompany him, and apparently some accepted. Once in Poughkeepsie, he spoke out against slavery, on at least one occasion, at the home of Matthew Vassar. 21 What does all of this mean? Jewett had clearly been a slaveholder, but at the same time he appears to have spoken out against this practice in ways that angered many of his neighbors, and in the North of course he manumitted several people. How did this situation develop? Was it a longstanding issue for Jewett, or did his views change over time? More research could perhaps help in answering these questions.

John Raymond

Second PresidentJohn H. Raymond

  • Lived: 1814–1878
  • President: 1864–1878
  • Position: Abolitionist
Enslaver Abolitionist Abolitionist

There was less ambiguity in the views on slavery held by Vassar’s second president, John Raymond, whose tenure lasted from 1864–1878. Raymond was born in New York, and studied at Columbia, Union College, New Haven School of Law, and Hamilton Baptist Theological Seminary. Raymond’s interest in the anti-slavery cause began when he lived in Rochester, New York from 1850–55. 22 There, while serving on the board of the recently-founded University of Rochester, he developed close ties with some of the country’s most ardent abolitionists, including William Ellery Channing, Henry Ward Beecher, and Frederick Douglass. 23 He was strongly against the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, as seen in his writings and speeches of the time. Raymond’s abolitionist activities continued during the Civil War. In 1863 he traveled to the United Kingdom with Henry Ward Beecher, one of the country’s most outspoken abolitionists, in an effort to prevent England from siding with the Confederacy. 24 Beecher noted that in a gathering in London, where Raymond spoke: “His first sentence was like an explosion, and his speech, a tremendous outburst of indignation at the lukewarmness of English friends…it electrified his audience and me too!” 25

Charter Trustees

An engraving showing the front of Vassar College, a large spread-out building with multiple stories. In front of the building are lawns with a circular garden area and a long drive on which are horse-drawn carriages.

Charter Trustees

Vassar’s first trustees—the charter trustees—were twenty-eight in number. 26 All were men, and apparently friends of Matthew Vassar. 27 Most were from the region in and around Poughkeepsie and had made their careers here. They came from a variety of professions, and several were either Baptist ministers or otherwise affiliated with the Baptist church. Many served long terms on the board. A detailed study of the charter trustees and their positions on slavery does not exist, and further research is needed; but even at a quick glance, we can see that as a group, these trustees reflected a wide variety of opinions on slavery.


We can begin by noting that some charter trustees showed themselves in various ways to be strongly opposed to slavery. 28 John Raymond’s abolitionist activity has already been mentioned.

Elias Magoon, Benson Lossing, and Henry Ward Beecher

  • Lived: 1810–1886
  • Trustee: 1861–1886
  • Position: Abolitionist
A 19th-century photo of Elias Magoon, a person with short gray hair and a formal 19th-century shirt and coat.

Charter TrusteeElias L. Magoon

  • Lived: 1810–1886
  • Trustee: 1861–1886
  • Position: Abolitionist
Enslaver Abolitionist Abolitionist

Elias Magoon, a Baptist minister, art collector, and trustee until 1885, was born in New Hampshire and educated at Colby College and Newton Theological Seminary. Known as an abolitionist, he had been forced to leave his position as pastor of a congregation in Richmond, Virginia in 1846 due to his anti-slavery views. 29 Benson Lossing, trustee until his death in 1891, was born in Beekman, New York; his mother was a Quaker. Best known as an historian, Lossing in his book Lossing’s History of the United States referred to the introduction of slavery in the seventeenth century as “a stain which was washed out with blood almost two centuries and a half afterwards.” 30 Henry Ward Beecher, an alumnus of Amherst College and as noted earlier one of the country’s most outspoken abolitionists, served on the Vassar board for four years, having joined in the year his friend John Raymond became president (1864). Beecher’s term overlapped with a number of charter trustees, but he was not technically among their group, since his term began after 1861.


Samuel F. B. Morse

  • Lived: 1791–1872
  • Trustee: 1861–1886
  • Position: Pro-slavery. While not known to have directly enslaved anyone himself, Morse was not just a supporter but an unabashed promoter of slavery.

Charter TrusteeSamuel F. B. Morse

  • Lived: 1791–1872
  • Trustee: 1861–1886
  • Position: Pro-slavery

    While not known to have enslaved anyone himself, Morse was not just a supporter but an unabashed promoter of slavery.

Enslaver Abolitionist Enslaver

At the same time, other charter trustees held strong pro-slavery views. One was Samuel F. B. Morse, a member of the board until his death in 1872. Born in Charlestown, Massachusetts to a famous Congregational pastor, Morse had success early in life as a painter, and for a time lived in Charleston, South Carolina. 31 Later he became known as the inventor of the telegraph and Morse code. These inventions brought Morse great wealth, and in 1847 he purchased the Locust Grove estate in Poughkeepsie. Politically, he was a Nativist; in fact, in 1836, he ran for mayor of New York on that party’s ticket. Espousing anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic views, he was especially upset that Irish Catholics spoke against the South and had “thrown a firebrand into the Slavery question.” 32 Later, during the Civil War, Morse’s promotion of slavery became more intense, both in his activities and his writing. He served as president of two pro-slavery groups, the American Society for the Promotion of National Unity, and then the Society for the Diffusion of Political Knowledge. For the latter, he wrote a pamphlet in 1863 titled “An Argument on the Ethical Position of Slavery in the Social System, and its Relation to the Politics of Today,” in which he stated, in part: “Slavery or the servile relation is proved to be one of the indispensable regulators of the social system, divinely ordained for the discipline of the human race in this world, and that it is in perfect harmony…with the great declared object of the Savior’s mission to earth.” 33

Morgan L. Smith

  • Lived: ????–1884
  • Trustee: 1861–1884
  • Position: Enslaver

Charter TrusteeMorgan L. Smith

  • Lived: ????–1884
  • Trustee: 1861–1884
  • Position: Enslaver
Enslaver Abolitionist Enslaver

Morgan L. Smith was a charter trustee who not only supported slavery; he had been an enslaver prior to his role at the College. Smith was born in Hyde Park, New York, in 1801 and attended school in Poughkeepsie. As a young man he moved to New York City where he had a successful business and became a member of the Chamber of Commerce, the Board of Aldermen, and the New York Militia, rising to a high rank. In 1834 he was called on to restore order during the city’s anti-abolitionist riots, and he “was not at all in sympathy” with the abolitionists. 34 Later, he was appointed U.S. Consul to Texas (Texas was not a state until 1845), and eventually took his business and family there. From the early 1840s to the late 50s, he was the lead owner of Waldeck Plantation, a sugar plantation in Brazoria County. Smith enslaved people on the plantation, and during the 1850s he increased the number of enslaved persons on the plantation significantly. 35 An early biography of Smith claimed that the system of slavery in place there “was shorn of many of its offensive features,” 36 but one recent scholar has argued that enslaved people who lived on sugar plantations in Brazoria County “faced a life filled with constant work and abuse.” 37 Smith sold the plantation in 1859, and returned to the North. He served on Vassar’s board until his death in 1884.

Other Views

Other trustees likely held more nuanced views on the issue of slavery but still supported its existence in certain places. One thinks especially of those who were affiliated with the Democratic party at this time, such as William Kelly, who served as the first chair of the board of trustees until 1872, and Joseph C. Doughty.

William Kelly

  • Lived: ????–????
  • Trustee: 1861–????
  • Position: Ambiguous. Kelly’s views on this are unclear. While not an enslaver himself, he likely supported slavery if his constituents did.

Charter TrusteeWilliam Kelly

  • Lived: ????–????
  • Trustee: 1861–????
  • Position: Ambiguous

    Kelly's views on this are unclear. While not an enslaver himself, he likely supported slavery if his constituents did.

Enslaver Abolitionist Probably Enslaver

Kelly was a businessman, farmer, politician, and philanthropist. 38 As a young man he worked in the family’s New York business and traveled extensively in the South, as he had business contacts throughout the region. The business was so successful that he was able to retire at a young age; he purchased the Ellerslie estate in Rhinebeck and developed a farm there. In 1860 he ran for governor of New York on the Stephen Douglas Democratic ticket. The Douglas Democrats believed that each territory should decide for itself about slavery; they therefore supported its existence if the local population was in favor. Though little evidence survives detailing Kelly’s specific views on this topic, it seems unlikely he would have had opinions different from his party on such an important issue. 39

Joseph C. Doughty

  • Lived: ????–????
  • Trustee: 1861–????
  • Position: We don’t know

Charter TrusteeJoseph C. Doughty

  • Lived: ????–????
  • Trustee: 1861–????
  • Position: We don't know
Enslaver Abolitionist Not sure

Doughty was a businessman in Poughkeepsie who was elected to the State Assembly from Dutchess County in 1863. He held “strong conservative views,” but like Kelly, little is known of his thoughts on slavery. 40

Several Republican politicians were among the charter trustees, including John Thompson, Ira Harris, and George T. Pierce. In general, their party—the party of Lincoln—opposed the extension of slavery to the territories, but still, within their ranks there was some divergence of opinion. 41

John Thompson

  • Lived: ????–????
  • Trustee: 1861–????
  • Position: Ambiguous. Similar to Kelly, Thompson appears to have adopted whatever position was politically expedient.

Thompson, who was a trustee until 1885, seems to have been a conservative Republican. 42 A prominent lawyer, he served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1857–1859; during his term he spoke on issues relating to slavery a number of times. In one speech from the House floor on the admission of Kansas, he voiced opposition to the Lecompton Constitution, a proposed constitution for Kansas that was pro-slavery, but in doing so, he said “though coming from the Empire State…it is well known that I am no political abolitionist, nor desirous of meddling with the domestic institutions of the South,” and later, “the population of the Territories will be the ultimate judges of what institutions they will establish.” 43

Ira Harris

  • Lived: ????–????
  • Trustee: 1861–1875
  • Position: Abolitionist

Ira Harris, who was a trustee until 1875, and chair from 1872, appears to have been a more moderate Republican, like his close friend Abraham Lincoln. We know that as a U.S. Senator from New York (1860–1866), he voted for the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude in the United States, except as punishment for a crime. 44

George Pierce

  • Lived: ????–????
  • Trustee: 1861–1868
  • Position: Probably Abolitionist

George Pierce, who was on the Vassar board until 1868, served terms in both the State Assembly and the State Senate. He had been one of New York’s “Barnburner” Democrats in the 1840s—part of the progressive, anti-slavery faction in that party—who joined the Republican party when it was formed. 45

Ezekiel Gilman Robinson

  • Lived: ????–????
  • Trustee: 1861–1868
  • Position: Probably Abolitionist. Evidence suggests Robinson had anti-slavery leanings, but was not open about them.

Ezekiel Gilman Robinson was another charter trustee who appears to have held anti-slavery sentiments but not to the point of being an abolitionist. He was born and raised in New England and became a Baptist minister and educator. From 1860 to 1872 he was president of the Rochester Theological Seminary (he later became president of Brown University, his alma mater). In 1846 he had accepted a teaching position at Western Baptist Theological Institute, a newly-formed school in Covington, Kentucky (near Cincinnati), that was supposed to be neutral in its position toward slavery. In 1847, however, a controversy arose when some trustees thought the president and other faculty held anti-slavery views. Robinson, along with the school’s president and another faculty member, had that year attended an anti-slavery conference in Ohio. The president and Robinson were later questioned by a committee of trustees about their views. Robinson tried to evade the questions being asked of him, and at one point said “I have known something of the violent abolitionists in the North, and by the grace of God have succeeded in keeping them at arm’s length.” But as a result of these events, both Robinson and the president left the school and took positions in the North. 46

Original Faculty and First Students

A black and white 19th-century photo of several young people wearing formal dresses.

Original Faculty
and First Students

A 19th-century photo of Maria Mitchell, a person with long gray hair and a formal 19th-century dress and cap. Mitchell is sitting in an ornate wooden chair, looking at the viewer.

First FacultyMaria Mitchell

  • Lived: 1818–1889
  • Faculty: 1865–1888
  • Position: Abolitionist

When Vassar opened in 1865, there were nine professors who together formed the faculty. 47 Among them were President Raymond, who also served as a professor of Mental and Moral Philosophy, and eight others. Each faculty member was responsible for a different academic department. Two were women. Three had been born in England or Europe, and the rest in the northern United States. Unfortunately, little is known about what the original faculty may have thought about the institution of slavery. It seems likely that most would have supported the Union and its cause given their northern heritage, but we cannot be sure. We do know about John Raymond’s abolitionist sympathies, as discussed earlier. And one other person’s anti-slavery beliefs were clear: Maria Mitchell.

Mitchell, who taught at Vassar for twenty-three years, was professor of Astronomy and head of the Vassar Observatory. She grew up on Nantucket in a Quaker family (the Quakers had a long history of anti-slavery beliefs), and a number of incidents in her life before Vassar reveal her own anti-slavery sentiments and actions. She had strong memories of her father helping a freedom-seeker living on the island to escape capture by his previous owner. In 1841, when she served as Librarian of the Nantucket Athenaeum, the library hosted a three-day Anti-slavery Convention where Frederick Douglass gave his first public speech and other key figures attended, including abolitionists such as Lucretia Mott, Lydia Maria Child, William Lloyd Garrison, and Wendell Phillips. As a form of protest, Mitchell refused to wear clothes made of Southern cotton. During a trip to the South in 1857, “the evil of slavery was uppermost in her mind,” and she wrote a number of reflections on its problems in her diary. 48

“…the greatest evil of slavery is that it puts temptation in the way of the white man…he has within his grasp a creature whom he believes to be of a lower order; the consequences are awful and I sicken at the details I hear.”

Maria Mitchell

Vassar’s first students entered in the fall of 1865, a few months after the war ended. 49 There were 353 altogether, organized into three divisions: Regular Collegiate Students; Specials or Irregular Collegiates; and Regular Preparatories. Toward the end of the first year, the “Regular Collegiate Students” were organized into classes, and the first students graduated in 1867. Maria Mitchell observed in her journal that the first students formed a “heterogeneous” group. Although about half came from the state of New York, there were “pupils from all parts of the country, of different training, different views.” According to the first annual catalogue there were six students from the South; they came from states including Tennessee, Virginia, and Alabama. 50 There were also four students from Washington, D.C., where slavery was legal until 1862, and a number of students from the “border states” of Delaware, Maryland, and Missouri (border states were slave states that did not secede from the Union). Little is known about the views of the first students towards slavery. It would be especially interesting to know more about the students from states where slavery had been legal. Did any of them come from families that had owned slaves? Had they supported the institution of slavery, as so many from their part of the country had? Was the issue ever discussed with the faculty, or among the students?


An oil painting depicting the surrender of the Confederacy at Appomattox. The painting shows a roomful of men in 19th-century American military uniforms, both blue and gray, while two men shake hands.


Slavery was abolished in the United States through a long, uneven process. In some states it ended during or shortly after the American Revolution; in others, such as New York, it occurred decades later, and only gradually. Of course, in southern states full eradication did not come until the end of the Civil War. As the war drew to a close, the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, was passed in Congress on January 31, 1865; it was fully ratified on December 6 of the same year. Slavery no longer existed in the United States as it had for so long, but this does not mean that racial equality had been achieved. To the contrary, the system of slavery left behind a number of legacies—political, economic, social, and cultural—that even today continue to influence the lives of individuals, families, and communities in America. 51

A follow-up study to this discussion of Vassar and slavery could look at contexts and details of how race was viewed at Vassar in later years. It could begin with a consideration of the period immediately after the Civil War. For instance, we know that during this time trustee Ira Harris voted in favor of the Thirteenth Amendment but was also removed as president of the Baptist Missionary Union for being “generally averse to the enlargement of black rights.” 52 In the late 1860s a number of famous abolitionists visited campus and gave speeches; trustees balked on one of them—Wendell Phillips—whom they thought would expose students to “radical views.” 53 We also know that beginning in 1872 the Society for Religious Inquiry began corresponding with African American students at Virginia’s Hampton Institute and sometimes sent contributions to help with their expenses. 54 Together even these few incidents suggest again a complicated picture.


A photograph of a large gothic building on a vast green lawn. The sun is setting.


The study of history often reveals insights that make us rethink how we view a particular topic. When we look at the issue of Vassar and slavery, a complex situation emerges. We see a variety of opinion and a variety of actions, ranging from anti-slavery to pro-slavery, and with many falling somewhere in between. Within the sample examined here, those most clearly identified as abolitionists often had ties to anti-slavery epicenters like New England and Rochester, New York; some had relatives who were Quakers. And views that were more sympathetic to slavery seem mainly to have been held by people who had ties to the South, either from having lived there, or having had business ties, or both. Still, even though there were examples of both abolitionism and pro-slavery, it appears there were more who held positions in between these two views, positions that were against slavery in the North, but not opposed to its existence in the South, or in the territories. And of course being anti-slavery didn’t necessarily mean a person was fully committed to the desegregation of society in general. Ultimately these circumstances form a unique chapter in Vassar’s history, and it is important to include it in the larger history of the school. Vassar’s history as it relates to slavery is also part of the story of American higher education. While the preceding discussion suggests a view of this topic, at the same time we must admit that there is still much we don’t know, due to lack of evidence or lack of study. It is hoped that additional, more focused studies will follow. In this way, we can continue to develop a more inclusive history of the College.

By Ronald D. Patkus

Head of Special Collections and College Historian

Ronald Patkus is a native of Connecticut. He received a BA from Boston College (1986), an MA and Certificate in Archival Management from the University of Connecticut (1987), an MS in Library Science from Simmons College (1993), and a PhD in History from Boston College (1997). Mr. Patkus serves as Associate Director of the Libraries for Special Collections and is a member of the History Department. He holds the Frederick Weyerhaeuser Endowed Chair in Biblical Literature and Bibliography. His teaching and research interests focus on the history of books and printing.

  1. In 2016, the consortium “Universities Studying Slavery” was formed, and today there are over 90 member institutions from the United States and abroad.

  2. Ned Benton, “Dating the Start and End of Slavery in New York,” New York Slavery Records Index

    See also Slavery in New York, ed. Ira Berlin and Leslie Harris. New York: New Press, 2005.

  3. Discussed in Michael E. Groth, Slavery and Freedom in the Mid-Hudson Valley. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 2017.

  4. Benton, “Dating the Start and End of Slavery in New York.”

  5. See part one of the “Mid-Hudson Anti-Slavery History Project June 2007 Research Report,” written by Rebecca Edwards, Torrie Williams, and Kristina Poznan.

  6. Obbie Tyler Todd, “Baptists, Slavery, and the Road to Civil War,”

  7. Several newspapers reported on the founding of the DCCS. See for example the Poughkeepsie Journal, February 25, 1824.

  8. Poughkeepsie Journal, February 25, 1824.

  9. New Directions in the Study of African American Recolonization, ed. Beverly C. Tomek and Matthew J. Hetrick. Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida, 2017, pp. 1–2.

  10. Craig Hollander, “Princeton and the Colonization Movement,”

  11. I’m grateful to Bill Jeffway of the Dutchess County Historical Society for sharing information on the DCCS.

  12. Helen Wilkinson Reynolds, “John A. Bolding, A Fugitive Slave,” Dutchess County Historical Society Yearbook, Vol. 20 (1935), 51–55.

  13. Both recorded on page 42 of Elizabeth Hazelton Haight’s The Autobiography and Letters of Matthew Vassar. New York: Oxford University Press, 1916.

  14. Reported in the article “Emancipation of One Hundred Slaves,” in The Religious Intelligencer, June 22, 1833.

  15. Gale L. Kenny, “Race, Sympathy, and Missionary Sensibility in the New England Colonization Movement,” in New Directions in the Study of African American Recolonization, pp. 33–49.

  16. Frances Dew Hamilton and Elizabeth Crabtree Wells, Daughters of the Dream: Judson College, 1838–1988. Marion, Alabama: Judson College, 1989, p. 52.

  17. United States Census (Slave Schedule), 1850, Perry Co., Alabama.

  18. Daughters of the Dream, p. 52.

  19. “Milo P. Jewett” in Vassar Encyclopedia.

  20. Alston Fitts, III, Selma: A Bicentennial History. Tuscaloosa, Alabama: The University of Alabama Press, 2016, p. 44.

  21. “The Vassars at Home,” in the Vassar Encyclopedia

  22. See especially Life and Letters of John Howard Raymond, ed. by his eldest daughter. New York: Fords, Howard, & Hulbert, 1881, pp. 263–273.

  23. The Autograph File in the Vassar Special Collections Library includes a letter from Douglass to Raymond’s daughter, written in 1880. Douglass writes at some length of the support Raymond gave Douglass when the Fugitive Slave Law was enacted in 1850.

  24. For more on Beecher’s life and work, see Debby Applegate, The Most Famous Man in America: the Biography of Henry Ward Beecher. New York: Doubleday, 2006.

  25. “Baptists and the American Civil War: June 29, 1863

  26. For an overview, see “A Brief Guide to Vassar’s Charter Trustees,” Vassar Encyclopedia

  27. Benson Lossing, Vassar College and its Founder. New York: C.A. Alvord, 1867, p. 88.

  28. None though appear to have been involved in the Hudson Valley’s Underground Railroad. See “Mid-Hudson Anti-Slavery History Project June 2007 Research Report”

  29. Magoon’s abolitionism is discussed in the first chapter of Samantha Cole, Abolitionism, Memory, and the Civil War in William Louis Sonntag’s Virginia Landscapes. Master’s thesis, University of Georgia, 2011.

  30. Benson Lossing, Lossing’s History of the United States of America from the Aboriginal Times to the Present Day. New York: Lossing History Company, [1913], Volume 2, p. 302.

  31. Much has been written about Morse; perhaps the most useful biography is Paul J. Staiti, Samuel F. B. Morse. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

  32. Imminent Dangers to the Free Institutions of the United States Through Foreign Immigration (New York: 1835), reprinted in New York: Arno Press and the New York Times, 1969, p. 14.


  34. Memorials of Morgan L. Smith, [s.l.]: [s.n.], 19--?, p. 13.

  35. Brazosport Archeological Society, “Waldeck Plantation,”

  36. Memorials of Morgan L. Smith, [s.l.]: [s.n.], 19--?, p. 16.

  37. John R. Lundberg, “’Texas Must Be a Slave Country:’ Slaves and Masters in the Texas Low Country, 1840–1860.” East Texas Historical Journal 53:2 (2015): 29–47.

  38. For an overview of his life, see Marsena R. Patrick, Memorial of Hon. William Kelly. Albany, New York: New York State Agricultural Society, 1873.

  39. Interestingly though, Kelly joined Abraham Lincoln’s train on its way to Washington, D.C. for his inauguration—it actually stopped in Rhinecliff.

  40. For an overview of Doughty, see entry on him in William D. Murphy, Biographical Sketches of the of the State Officers and Members of the Legislature of the State of New York. Albany: Printed for the author, 1863, pp. 312–313.

  41. See Gary W. Gallagher, “The Varied Political Views on Emancipation During the Civil War.”

  42. For a short biography see “Hon. John Thompson,” in James H. Smith, History of Duchess County, New York. Syracuse, New York: D. Mason & Co., 1882, pp. 448–450.

  43. Speech of Hon. John Thompson of New York, in the House of Representatives, March 31, 1858. Washington, D.C.: Buell & Blanchard, 1858.

  44. For more on Harris, see “Albany’s Ira Harris: From Rights Advocate to Lincoln’s Assassination” in the New York Almanack

  45. For an overview of Pierce, see entry on him in William D. Murphy, Biographical Sketches of the of the State Officers and Members of the Legislature of the State of New York. Albany: Printed for the author, 1861, pp. 247–249.

  46. The episode is described in several places. See, for example, C. Walker Gollar, “The Role of Midwestern Christian Higher Education in the Abolition of Slavery”, The Cresset (Vol. LXX, No. 4), pp. 22–23. For Robinson’s own description of these events, see Ezekiel Gilman Robinson: An Autobiography, ed. E.H. Johnson. New York: Silver, Burdett and Company, 1896, pp. 36–37.

  47. “Overview of Original Faculty,” in Vassar Encyclopedia.

  48. These and other episodes of anti-slavery activity are recorded in chapter 6 of Helen Wright, Sweeper in the Sky: The Life of Maria Mitchell, First Woman Astronomer in America. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1949.

  49. For an overview, see “The First Students” in the Vassar Encyclopedia.

  50. First Annual Catalogue of the Officers and Students Vassar Female College, Poughkeepsie, N.Y., 1865–66. New York: John A. Gray & Green, 1866.

  51. The Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale University has produced a useful overview of legacy themes.

  52. Victor B. Howard, Religion and the Radical Republican Movement, 1860–1870. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, p. 97.

  53. See section on Phillips in “Vassar Visitors,” in the Vassar Encyclopedia

  54. See entry for January 27, 1867 in A Documentary Chronicle of Vassar College

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