Study: Rutgers University Built on Racism

Founded in 1776, Rutgers University was founded to educate white colonists, was dependent on slave labor and benefitted from the displacement and cultural subjugation of Native Americans.

Rutgers University, chartered by the Dutch Reformed Church in 1766, was founded on principles of racism, inequality and subjugation, an internal study found.

One of only nine colleges established before the American Revolution, Rutgers depended on slave labor for its existence—a common link among colonial-era institutions. Early faculty and curriculum also reinforced “the theological and scientific racism that provided the ideological and spiritual justification” for separation of the races, states the introduction of a new book called Scarlet and Black, published by Rutgers University after a year-long investigation into its past.

But Rutgers, chartered as Queen’s College in New Brunswick and now the three-campus state university of New Jersey, also benefitted from the displacement and cultural subjugation of Native Americans, researchers found. The school was built on land wrangled from the Lenape, whose traditional territory spanned much of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, southern New York and Delaware.

While white colonists “multiplied and founded schools and universities to guarantee their children’s future, the Lenape … watched their world dwindle and their children grow hungry,” the book states. The Lenape endured a “gradual but deadly process in which one community paid with their very lives for the successes of another group.”

The book, the first in what promises to become a series, comes one year after Rutgers University—during its 250th anniversary—launched a research committee comprising of faculty, graduate students and undergraduates and charged with exploring “enslaved and disenfranchised populations” in the university’s history. Researchers focused specifically on Rutgers’ historic relationships with both African Americans and Natives.

“With African American history, we have records of the buying and selling of slaves by people who founded the university,” said Camilla Townsend, history professor at Rutgers and a lead researcher. “With the Native American history, we have more of an indirect story about the people and community that benefitted from Native American loss.”

The Lenape people, now more commonly called the Delaware, were fierce yet spiritual people with ancient roots along the East Coast. A non-homogenous group, the Lenape were tied together by the Algonquin language, homes made of bark and a common love of both ocean and forest, Curtis Zunigha, a former chief of the Delaware Tribe and a self-made tribal historian, said in a phone interview.


After contact with the Dutch in about 1605 and later the British, the Lenape entered into a series of treaties that eventually displaced them from their ancestral homelands and pushed them westward, Zunigha said. Lenape Chief Tamanend in 1683 signed a treaty with William Penn, providing the land for settlers to build the city of Philadelphia.

Nearly a century later, the Lenape became the first tribe to sign a formal treaty with the United States. The Treaty of Fort Pitt, signed in September 1778, granted the U.S. Army permission to travel through Lenape territory during the American Revolution. It also established trade agreements between the government and the tribe.

Meanwhile, the Lenape ceded all claims to New Jersey through a series of treaties in the mid-18th century, Zunigha said. The Lenape left in small groups, heading north to Canada or west, eventually settling in Oklahoma.

“By the War of 1812, settlers had pushed most of the Delaware out so they could occupy the lands,” Zunigha said. “But the diaspora was a process, not a single event. There were a lot of people left there and a lot of graves. The settlers walked on those graves as they continued to march westward to build the United States of America.”

When Queen’s College was built in 1766, most of the Delaware had left New Jersey, said Brice Obermeyer, the tribe’s historic preservation officer. Families that continued to live on ceded land often were killed or forced to convert to Christianity.

“There was no large-scale exodus, but pulses of people that moved out of New Jersey during a 60-year time period,” Obermeyer said. “But there’s a brutality to this. Land sale sounds above the bar, like a no-fault type of deal. Riddled in these documents, however, are obvious accusations of war, of brutality leading up to land sales.”

Rutgers University researchers studied political relationships with the lingering Lenape, but they also took a broader view of what Townsend called a “system of dispossession.”

“We pulled the camera back to look at the whole century,” she said. “We studied the Dutch and Anglo-American populations that rose to wealth and prominence in that period in direct relation to their ability to disempower and dispossess the Native American people in the area who were gradually pushed westward.”

Even after the Lenape left New Jersey, Rutgers University and other land-grant universities continued to benefit from the removal of Native Americans, said Kaisha Esty, a Ph.D. candidate in Rutgers’ history department and author of the final chapter in the book Scarlet and Black. The Morrill Act of 1862, passed nearly 100 years after Rutgers was founded, allowed the university, as a state college specializing in “agriculture and the mechanic arts,” to benefit from the sale of Indian lands in the west.

One of the 13 original colonies, New Jersey didn’t hold any land in the public domain, so it relied on the sale of vaguely described “Indian lands.”

“Under the Morrill Act, New Jersey was given a land script that it was charged with disposing of, but because it was so vaguely defined, they were able to do it with a clean conscience,” Esty said. “The Morrill Act system relied on Native American erasure in order to enable schools to profit from the sale of public government land, and also for private white investors to get their hands on the land out west.”

With profits from Indian land, East Coast Americans were able to establish universities and offer education to settlers, Townsend said. Land-grant schools “benefitted enormously from indigenous losses but they weren’t forced to confront the fact that they were dispossessing.”

The Rutgers University study, which comes more than four centuries after the Lenape first experienced contact with European settlers, follows other universities that, in recent years, have tried to confront the past. Brown University, founded in 1764, formed a similar committee to examine its ties to the slave trade.

Georgetown, Yale and Harvard also have studied their formative years. More recently, Northwestern University and the University of Denver explored their connection to John Evans, a railroad tycoon who founded both institutions but who also was partly responsible for the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado.

In its report, Rutgers’ research committee included recommendations to reconcile with African American and Native populations and improve racial and cultural relationships on campus. The recommendations include establishing an exchange program with Native students at Haskell Indian Nations University, providing funds for the annual New Jersey Native American folk festival, continuing research into Rutgers University's history, placing historical markers around campus and naming buildings after prominent African Americans and Natives.

The committee also recommends that Rutgers University mend its broken connections with the Delaware people—including federally recognized tribes in Wisconsin and Oklahoma and two Canadian First Nations—as well as New Jersey’s three state-recognized tribes.

“What we’d like to see is a real and vibrant connection with the Lenape,” Townsend said. “That’s our next step.”

But that might not be enough for descendants of the Lenape who have spent generations on the margins of society, Zunigha said. He wants to see Rutgers embark on “institutional change.”

“It’s going to take more than erecting a statue of a Delaware from 1778 to make it all good,” he said. “It should be more than revising history, but creating a different perspective that is more respectful of today’s people. Rutgers has the potential to change this country through education. It needs to have a commitment to get to the root truth and then use that as a way of changing policies and attitudes.”