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Union College students, alumni question way school commemorates former leader

Union College students, alumni question way school commemorates former leader

Why Nott? Examining a legacy
Union College students, alumni question way school commemorates former leader
Left: Union College President Eliphalet Nott; Right: Emily Coello in front of the Nott Memorial at Union College.
Photographer: Left: Courtesy of the Schenectady County Historical Society; Right: Marc Schultz

Eliphalet Nott’s legacy is hard to miss on Union College’s campus.  

The former school president, who served as the longest running collegiate president in U.S. history from 1804-1866, is remembered whenever students drive down Nott Street to get to class, step inside the historic 16-sided Nott Memorial building for lectures, or even open a dead link on the school’s website (as it sometimes reads “Page Nott Found”). 

A six-paragraph biography on Union’s website even recognizes Nott as a “giant in his time.” It touches on his vision for the school, his push to make it comparable to Harvard and Brown, and his work as a successful inventor. 

But some students feel the school’s approach to commemorating Nott may overshadow the more controversial aspects of his legacy. In the 1820s, Nott was a prominent member of the American Colonization Society, whose members believed Black people should be sent to Africa instead of being free in the U.S. In 1859 — despite the school’s junior class voting otherwise — Nott reportedly pushed to remove David Rosell, who was believed to be Union’s first Black student, from campus. And throughout his history, Nott reportedly owned slaves, later implying he was embarrassed by it. 

While most Union students and alumni don’t wish to see Nott’s name removed from campus, they say the school should inform students more about Nott’s history and openly discuss his views. Union’s administration says it’s taking the steps necessary to research Nott, and other figures, in hopes of doing so. 

“The narratives of Nott are very [flattering to him],” said 2020 graduate Emily Coello. “Like, ‘He did this amazing thing or he’s this amazing person. He couldn’t have done anything wrong,’ which was not true at all.”

Coello is one of many college students and alumni nationwide — including those at Yale, UNC Chapel Hill and the University at Buffalo — who are calling for the re-examination of statues and buildings honoring those with historically controversial or racist views. And amid the George Floyd protests last month, statues have been torn down or are under consideration for being removed for honoring figures such as Thomas Jefferson, Christopher Columbus and Philip Schuyler, whose statue stands in Albany. 

Gretchel Hathaway, dean of Diversity and Inclusion and chief diversity officer at Union College.Gretchel Hathaway, Union’s dean of diversity and inclusion and chief diversity officer, said Union President David Harris recently launched an initiative and steering committee — made up of staff, faculty, students and alumni — to look into how Union should research and address the histories of its campus and its former figures. 

She said in order to decide on adding further context to Nott’s name, biographies or any other decisions regarding his place on campus, the committee, which is part of the Initiative on Race, Power, and Privilege, must look into his history first. 

Harris was not available to comment on Nott in time for publication, according to Union’s communications department.

“You can’t do this work, you can’t tear down a statue or move it somewhere without understanding the history behind it,” Hathaway said. “And that’s just as important as understanding the positive history of the college.


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“Our students should know — walking in the door — oh yes, there used to be slaves on campus. So [we’re] really making sure students know the fun history of our campus, the funky history of our campus, but they also need to know the true history.”

Hathaway, who herself has read many of Nott’s speeches, said Nott “never comes out saying he’s an abolitionist” and that it’s “phenomenal to see his growth as a person.”

“Because he knew, at one time, he’s owned slaves,” Hathaway said. “But his views changed. … But it’s just like what I’m teaching our students. I teach our students about unconscious biases. We’ve all had them. I talk to students about prejudices that are learned and how they can be unlearned. And to me, that’s what Nott did. He unlearned the prejudices he had been raised with.”

‘Kind of glorified’

While Union is looking into its past like many across the country, students such as Tawreak Eddington, president of the college’s Black Student Union, say in the past they’ve only heard Nott’s name “thrown out there” without many details about his tenure. 

“It’s all kind of like a George Washington situation, where everybody knows his name and has respect and admiration for him, but nobody really knows what he did,” Eddington said. “The way that [Nott] is talked about on campus is kind of glorified. They talk not necessarily about what he did, but how long he served, mostly.” 

Coello spent much of her time at Union researching Nott’s legacy for her senior thesis, titled “Eliphalet Nott, Union College, and the influence of enslavement on higher education in the 19th century.” In the 79-page work, she explores narratives surrounding Nott, his views on race and why she believes it’s important to reconsider this “historical memory.”

“One of the things I talk about a lot are narratives and who gets to create them,” said Coello, who has written op-eds on the topic for Union’s student paper, The Concordiensis. “Because he was at the college for so long, he got to build his own legacy.”

Similarly, 2018 alum Andrew Cassarino researched Nott for his thesis, “Botany Bay: Slavery and Social Reform at Union College during the Early Nineteenth Century,” after questioning why a statue of U.S. president and Union alum Chester A. Arthur, who signed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, was on campus. Cassarino is now part of Union’s new steering committee.

While enrolled in a class called History of Union — taught by now-retired professor Denis Brennan — Cassarino was inspired to research Nott and look into how many original Union trustees owned slaves. He’s since created an Instagram account (@UnionCollegeHistory) to share some of his lesser-known findings. 

“A lot of this is very new to the school,” Cassarino said. “No one’s really put in the time to research this aspect. So it’s not like it’s been well-known and they’ve been actively choosing not to talk about it. It just hasn’t really been known, which of course is problematic because you look at all these other schools going in and doing the research, and being very public with their research and investing funds into it.”

Brennan, also Niskayuna’s town historian, taught the History of Union class to students like Cassarino and Coello for five years before retiring in 2019, and said the class made use of Union’s special collections department, which gave students experience with the archival library. Throughout the lecture, he discussed the school’s past, with two weeks of the class spent discussing Nott, who Brennan said most students knew because of the namesake.

“He was president for 62 years and it was really under his leadership that the school established itself as a prominent college in the states,” Brennan said.

In his 62 years, Nott purchased 250 acres of land where Union now sits, enlisted French architect Joseph Ramée to work on the school and helped introduce a “parallel curriculum” that allowed students to choose between “ancient and modern languages,” and “between abstract subjects and practical technology,” according to the school’s website. 

Brennan said “there’s no reason why” his beliefs “shouldn’t be talked about within the context of the times and what that contributes to an individual’s reputation or work.” And while “revisionist history is usually thrown out as a concern,” he believes looking back at these figures is “history’s job.”

“In a real sense, history’s job is to be revisionist,” Brennan said. “Just to look back and find out something new and something different, and look at things in the past with a different perspective. … Perception is constantly changing and it should constantly change.”

Evolving views

Schenectady County Historian Bill Buell said Nott is known mostly among historians — outside of his long history at the school — for his relationship with Moses Viney, a former slave from Maryland who worked for Nott after escaping. Nott paid for his freedom and later sent Viney to Canada in 1850 after the signing of the Fugitive Slave Act, as Viney reportedly feared he’d be sent back to enslavement. 

Buell said that later in life, Nott told Union’s Johnathan Pearson he once owned a slave in an interview, and admitted it was the wrong thing to do. Buell said Nott evolved to become an opponent of slavery, later mentoring former U.S. Secretary of State William Seward and encouraging his students at Union to openly discuss slavery. 

“Even Abraham Lincoln, at one point, was involved in the American Colonization Society,” Buell said. “Lincoln thought, at the time, that it was the best way to deal with [slavery]. He evolved and now we know what he did. We’d like our leaders to be totally enlightened right from the time they were born to the time they died, but people have to grow. If you were born in 1809 or 1795, you were influenced by the world around you.”

Buell said the story of David Rosell, who was Union’s first Black student in 1859, is a low moment in Nott’s history and he understands why students are concerned. When Rosell transferred to the school, Nott ordered that students should decide on his enrollment with a vote, according to a New York Times article. When the junior class that year voted 34-24 in favor of him staying, Nott then reportedly said the vote had to be unanimous and ordered Rosell to leave. The Times reported that Nott rescinded his decision because he discovered Rosell was Native American and not Black; Rosell left the school anyway.

“That was not Nott’s finest hour,” said Buell, a longtime Gazette reporter who now works as a part-time contributor for the paper. 

Jahnae Morgan, a Union student and former BSU president, said she first heard about Nott during her freshman orientation, but she hasn’t heard his connection to slavery or racism discussed on campus.

“It is upsetting to see the light in which Union has chosen to portray the legacy of Nott,” Morgan said. “It does a disservice to the entire student population to not be entirely truthful about Union’s history. As a Black woman, I wouldn’t have been able to attend Union a little over 50 years ago. I want the school to be honest about what this institution, and its leaders, have been in the past.”

Morgan said she was most surprised that Nott is looked at as being “anti-slavery” when he himself owned at least one slave. Cassirono’s research found that he may have owned three, according to his Union history Instagram account. 

Coello presented her findings and more during Union’s annual Steinmetz Symposium in front of members of the school’s administration earlier this year. Before her presentation, she said an administrator told her that her “facts were wrong” and that she should reconsider. But she didn’t, and during her presentation she offered recommendations to the school: Reevaluate its institutional history; add context to Nott’s name on campus; and recognize other figures on campus.

‘Acknowledge the whole history’

Cassarino agrees that the school should open figures like Nott up to a larger discussion and provide further context about his views on race and slavery when discussing his role in the school. Coello recommended Union publicly honor other figures from underrepresented groups — like Viney.

“I think Moses Viney is an amazing person,” Coello said. “To be able to escape from [slavery], he deserves his own story, but the school only couples the two together and only uses Moses as a crutch to make Nott look better.”

She also said Union should be careful in how they “present [Viney’s] narrative to the public,” as she said members of the school community tend to make the pair seem like “friends.” 

“My research contradicted that,” Coello said. “[Nott] was a member of the Colonization Society. … Even if they had a ‘friendship,’ it definitely was not a traditional friendship.”

Hathaway, who researched Viney and wrote a historical fiction book, “A Bonded Friendship: Moses and Eliphalet,” on his life and relationship with Nott, said Union had a two-year program honoring Viney, and that his portrait hangs in the president’s house and in her office, as the first portrait done of a person of color on campus. Hathaway says she feels a connection to Viney as a Black administrator. 

“Moses, to me, was the first to work so closely with the president,” Hathaway, who leaves Union in August for Franklin & Marshall, said. “And the next person in line was me.”

Coello said she hopes the school can soon honor Viney publicly with a monument or biography on its website. 

Cassarino recommended Union offer a course, similar to one offered at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where students are taught how to research local history and can contribute findings to the school for archival purposes. 

“This is what I was supporting when I was doing my thesis,” Cassarino said. “They [can] teach you how to research local history, and then you actually go into your archives and do these research topics on the school’s connection to slavery.”

Moving forward, Morgan said she wants Union to share its “entire story” with the school community.

“I think that Union needs to acknowledge the whole history and its impacts. You can still speak about Nott, but when you do highlight David [Rosell] as well. I think that should include all racist figures from Union’s past. When we talk about Chester A. Arthur, let’s talk about the Chinese Exclusion Act as well. … I absolutely think the school should be honest about the entirety of Union’s history. I think it could be an important reminder that we all have work to do in being anti-racist.”

Hathaway said she’d also like to see these topics discussed further on campus, and that President Harris wants the initiative to be successful, even as Hathaway leaves the school. 

“The group will be looking at the history of the college, but all history,” Hathaway said. “Not just the slave history; the fact that we sit on land that used to belong to the Mohawk. We’ll be having subcommittees looking at many different things, and having discussions around the issue of not just Eliphalet Nott or folks who had slaves, but also Chester Arthur and other things we find as we look back at the college’s history. That committee will be starting work this summer.”

While Cassarino said he’s glad the school is taking “actionable” steps, he hopes public acknowledgments on campus follow suit.

“At the center, our most beautiful building on campus is Nott Memorial,” Cassarino said. “There should be some kind of flag that recognizes Union’s connection to enslavement. Because without slavery, you wouldn’t have Union College, in my opinion. But also without Eliphalet Nott, you wouldn’t have Union College. I think it’s really important that the college recognizes those two things.”

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