If things had worked out differently, New Haven, Conn. would be home to Yale University (pictured) as well as the first HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) in America.
Cheyney University in Philadelphia enjoys the distinction as the first HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) in America.
But the city of New Haven, Conn. should enjoy that distinction instead if leaders in the town did not prevent the school from taking shape, which is depicted in the “What Could Have Been” documentary.
The documentary comes from the Beinecke Library at Yale University and examines the Elm City in 1831 when a group of freed African-Americans and White abolitionists created a proposal to establish an African-American college in the town.
“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. 1831 was the dawn of the abolition movement, and you have so many amazing New Haven leaders,” said Tubyes Cropper, the community engagement program manager at the Beinecke Library at Yale.
Michael Morand, director of community engagement at the Beinecke Library, added, “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. It was clear that this was the story that was important in its time, important for our time.”
FOX 61 reported that when the proposal first became public, it had momentum from the local community and from those at an inaugural leadership convention for the African-American community in Philadelphia.
Unfortunately, at the time the city’s mayor and many in the city’s White community disagreed with the plans.
Therefore, the plans for the first college for African-Americans got quickly shut down.
Reportedly, hundreds showed up at the town’s statehouse to show their disapproval a few days after a meeting was held to discuss the planned college for African-Americans.
Cropper said, “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. So, you have many free Black people in New Haven, but you still have…enslaved people in New Haven.”
Although the efforts to start the HBCU did not come to fruition, many scholars remained determined to keep the story in the forefront.
Cropper added, “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 available.”
Employees at Beinecke found primary sources to create their 25-minute documentary of what could have been if efforts for a college for African-Americans had succeeded.
They found firsthand documents saved from that period in 1831.
“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. 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,” Cropper said. “You are time traveling. As we say, we do a lot of time traveling here with primary sources.”
But unlike many documentaries, “What Could Have Been” will leave viewers hanging, forcing them to do more research if they want to uncover the entire story.
“This documentary is not going to provide the final answer to people’s questions. 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,” said Morand.
Although New Haven, Conn. did not get an HBCU, things seem to have come full circle in the town where Yale University is located.
Via the Pennington Fellowship, Yale is offering students the opportunity to study at an HBCU by offering $20,000 per student.
Patricia Melton, president of New Haven Promise, said, “Yale is the only university in the country funding a promise program for students to go to a lot of other universities.”
In December, Kyle Jones of NBC Connecticut reported, “The program is focused on college readiness and scholarships for New Haven Public School students to use at colleges and universities in Connecticut. It lifts the burden of higher education costs so families can focus on preparing their students for college.
“It was co-founded in 2010 by Yale, who’s provided $29 million in scholarship funds over the last 12 years.”
Melton added, “Once students go to college, we’re paying their tuition as well as working with them around paid internships and career pathways.”
NBC Connecticut also reported that Rev. James W. C. Pennington was the first African-American student to attend Yale University, thus the name of the fellowship.
Pennington escaped slavery and gained his emancipation after 24 years.
He could not formally attend Yale University because of racial barriers.
However, Pennington did audit divinity classes at Yale, eventually becoming a scholar, minister, public speaker and abolitionist.
This fall, New Haven Promise will gift 12 Pennington Fellowships so that students can attend HBCUs like Hampton University, Morgan State University, Spelman College and Morehouse College.
HBCUs exist because segregation barred African-American students from attending predominantly White institutions (PWIs) of higher learning.
As a result, schools dedicated to the advancement of African-Americans began sprouting up throughout the country, mainly in the South.
Even when African-Americans could finally attend some PWIs, they often faced exclusion and ostracism, which often led to the forming of predominantly African-American fraternities and sororities.