As the 2019-2020 academic year gets underway, Universities Studying Slavery (USS) continues to expand. Today, the consortium and the movement it represents now includes fifty-six colleges and universities in five countries. Please welcome Bard College to the family.
In 1860, when Bard College was founded as St. Stephen’s College, slavery in New York State had been illegal for thirty-three years. Nonetheless, the treasurer of its first board of directors, John Lloyd Aspinwall (1816-1873), a retired and nationally respected businessman and philanthropist, had earned his fortune in a family mercantile firm that traded in cotton, coffee, and sugar—all goods produced by enslaved people. Additionally, Montgomery Place—a National Historic Site and 380-acre property on the college’s southern border which Bard purchased in 2016—functioned as a profitable farm and nursery that was part of a string of slavery-based northern plantations in the Hudson River Valley that were owned by wealthy whites from the colonial period through 1827. In fact, Janet Livingston Montgomery (1743-1828), Montgomery Place owner from 1802 to 1828, still held a dozen slaves on the estate as late as 1820.
This information prompted the creation of a new Bard course, The Window at Montgomery Place, taught by Professor Myra Young Armstead, which offers an historical exploration of northern social hierarchies during the antebellum period and the critical role of slavery in their formation, using Montgomery Place as a case study. The class is part of Bard’s Engaged Liberal Arts and Sciences curriculum—a set of courses providing students opportunities for civic engagement. In this case, the instructor led the class in producing two separate exhibits—one for December 2017 and the second for the summer of 2019. Both highlight slavery at Montgomery Place but were displayed at two separate venues in the nearby village of Red Hook, New York. The most recent exhibition, “Alexander Gilson: From Property to Property Owner,” focused on the key role of Gilson (ca. 1818-1889) as head gardener at Montgomery Place, which was admired in elite circles during the nineteenth century for its beautiful landscape. The exhibit underscored the role of Gilson, born enslaved at Montgomery Place, as a developer of two plant varieties that received notice in nineteenth century national and international horticultural journals, and which bear his name— Begonia ‘gilsonii’ and Iresine herbstii ‘gilsoni.’
Bard College is continuing to investigate slavery at Montgomery Place and the involvement of Bard’s founders in enterprises linked with slave-based plantations. Of special interest at present is a possible enslaved burial site at Montgomery Place and the investment portfolio of John Bard (1819-1899), Christian philanthropist and founder of St. Stephen’s. In the meanwhile, the College has altered its geography to include signage indicating the connections between Aspinwall, Gilson, and slavery. Bard has also renamed one of its buildings Gilson Place in honor of Alexander Gilson.
Bard College is the second school in New York State to join the USS team. In the United States, USS now includes schools in Alabama, DC, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. So glad to have Bard College participating in this important work.