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Yale documentary explains how New Haven had a chance to become home to the first HBCU

“What Could Have Been” is a documentary from Beinecke Library at Yale that explores the proposal made to form a Black college in 19th-century New Haven.

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — There are dozens of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) across the country, and only a handful got their start before the Civil War.

However, did you know that New Haven could have also been home to a Black college established pre-Civil War? In fact, it could have been the first in the nation, had there been enough support.

“What Could Have Been” is a new documentary from the Beinecke Library at Yale University that explores the Elm City in 1831 and the group of freed Black people and white abolitionists that formed a proposal to establish a Black college in the city.

"What’s most important about this story is how courageous the Black leaders of New Haven and the antebellum north were at a time...there weren’t many movements going on for civil liberties for equal rights," Tubyez Cropper said. "1831 was the dawn of the abolition movement, and you have so many amazing New Haven leaders."

Cropper is the Community Engagement Program Manager at the Beinecke Library at Yale. He and his colleague Michael Morand, who is the Director of Community Engagement at the Beinecke Library, led the charge in digging deep into New Haven's roots.

"It’s been written about in scholarly circles and Black historical [society] circles in the 19th century and the 20th century and our century so it’s a story that’s been known but not broadly known," Morand said. "It was clear that this was the story that was important in its time, important for our time."

The proposal had hit the ground running with some local support, including support from those in attendance at an inaugural Black leadership convention in Philadelphia.

However, the city's mayor at the time and many of the white neighbors did not agree with the plans and quickly shut them down. Hundreds gathered at the city's new state house to show their opposition just days after a local meeting about the Black college was held, according to the research uncovered.

“When people think of Connecticut, they think of it as a very progressive state, but that was one of the last states in the northeast region to really abolish slavery," Cropper said. "So you have many free Black people in New Haven but you still have still enslaved people in New Haven.”

Though the proposal for a Black college in New Haven was ultimately thwarted, the hard work and effort to create a plan and garner support won't go forgotten.

"We know these well-known national figures who were born in slavery and still had the drive to just get that education necessary for human progression and societal progression so...the higher education is attainable," Cropper said.

Centuries later, while access to attend college and other forms of higher education has expanded, the team behind the documentary says there's still a long way to go.

"It's not readily available, but I think we can all get that as long as we still have that curiosity to go for it," Cropper added.

With help from colleagues at Beinecke and members of the New Haven Museum, a plethora of primary sources - first-hand documents saved from that time period - were gathered and used to piece together "what could have been" that summer of 1831.

"Primary sources are something to behold," Cropper said.

"It is such a different experience when you're actually seeing what you read about in textbooks and in news, right? Because you're there," Cropper added. "At that point, when you're holding it when you are reading through what that person in 1831 was reading through, you are almost in their shoes. You are time-traveling. As we say, we do a lot of time traveling here with primary sources."

One of the primary sources used and featured is a report put together by those in support of the Black college. On the cover and inside, John Warner Barber wrote "to be carefully preserved."

Credit: Beinecke Library
1831 College Proposal in New Haven

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"It’s almost a message in a bottle from 1831; When you come across it that somebody said 'this mattered. This should not be forgotten,'" Morand said.

And like with many moments of history, we won't get all of the answers we may be looking for. While the documentary answers as many questions as it can, the folks behind the research encourage others to continue that yearning to find out more and seek out the answers themselves.

"This documentary is not going to provide the final answer to people's questions," Morand said. "We hope it will give them information, but most importantly will spur them to ask more questions and go look for themselves. And scour primary and secondary sources and learn more and have conversations and think about it."

One of the questions it does answer: Where in the city would the campus have been?

We won’t spoil it here, but the first minute of the doc reveals where and elaborates later on. Hint: It's along the Long Island Sound and connects thousands to their destinations every day.

"As a place all of us know, no one in Connecticut doesn't know that everybody's been through that, and so you can understand that it's the sort of taking these things that are not hidden, but not necessarily well seen," Morand said.

The documentary runs for about 25 minutes. There will be a showing of "What Could Have Been" at the New Haven Museum on Wednesday, Feb. 22 at 6 p.m. Masks are required.

The show date will be Feb. 28.

For those who can't make it to the showing or can't wait to watch the documentary, it is available on YouTube here.

Leah Myers is a digital content producer at FOX61 News. She can be reached at lmyers@fox61.com


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