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Washington University has portrayed its co-founder as an abolitionist — he wasn't

A portrait of Washington University cofounder William Greenleaf Eliot hands above a fireplace mantel on Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021, at the university’s Holmes Lounge on its Danforth Campus in St. Louis, Missouri.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
A portrait of Washington University co-founder William Greenleaf Eliot hangs above a fireplace mantel at the university’s Holmes Lounge on its Danforth Campus.

Many people view William Greenleaf Eliot as an abolitionist.

History books highlight his role in co-founding Washington University as paramount, but they don’t question his anti-slavery views. Eliot was a pre-Civil War-era man, but the long-held belief that he was an abolitionist is nothing more than a myth that Eliot's own writings disprove. Eliot was opposed to abolition, and he supported the idea of colonization.

A team of Washington University students and faculty recently uncovered this long-forgotten history while exploring Eliot’s legacy. Iver Bernstein, professor of history and African and African American studies at the university, is co-teaching the course Rethinking Wash U's Relationship to Enslavement: Past, Present, and Future. Earlier, this year, Wash U joined Universities Studying Slavery, a consortium of more than 80 colleges and universities. The course is an extension of that effort.

Students took a hands-on approach with the research that eventually led to a detailed article in the university’s independent student newspaper Student Life.

Nkemjika Emenike, a teaching assistant for the course and a history major at Wash U, was one of several students who co-authored the article about their findings. Her co-authors are Adam Teich, Aidan Smyth, Cecilia Wright and Detric Henderson.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Marissanne Lewis-Thompson spoke with Emenike and Bernstein on Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air about who Eliot really was.

Marissanne Lewis-Thompson: For a long time people associated William Greenleaf Eliot with being an abolitionist and having anti-slavery views. But after combing through a ton of historical documents, y'all found that his views were complex, and he did not align himself with being an abolitionist. What led to that conclusion?

Iver Bernstein: Those key documents that have allowed this amazing team of students to publish this article on William Greenleaf Eliot's views are really hiding in plain sight. And you only have to read about 15 minutes into the Eliot letters, and his published articles, his sermons, to realize that not only was he not an abolitionist, he was vehemently opposed to abolitionism and saw the abolitionists as a great threat to the plans he wanted to develop for St. Louis, and by extension Washington University.

Lewis-Thompson: Then where did this narrative that he was abolitionist even come from and why did it even stick?

Bernstein: Looking at the label from the present day, it really does seem that having that label serves some obvious function. It makes Eliot sort of a founding father you can be proud of — of Washington University. It's a simple label. And it seems to put him on the side of morality and the angels. So there's no question that the branding of the university as a kind of progressive enterprise, which of course in so many ways it is. But to have Eliot's abolitionist imprimatur attached to that has been something that the university has been happy to have. But the question of when over the last 100-150 years, the mythology of Eliot as an abolitionist came about is something that I think is going to be a subject of future research.

Lewis-Thompson: It is quite ironic, because he was definitely not a fan of the abolitionist movement. Your research found that Eliot thought of abolitionists as radicals and even described them at a point as being "Abolition Pharisees," that would be fine with burning the country down to get their views across. Nkemjika, is there a clear reason why he felt so strongly opposed to abolitionists in comparison to other groups?

Nkemjika Emenike: I think Eliot was in the process of building a city, building an institution. He was one of few wealthy men at the time who were very influential in creating what St. Louis would be; they were seeking to put St. Louis on the map. And I think he saw abolitionists and this idea of these radical northerners who didn't understand what the Missouri life was about and the St. Louis life was about, imposing these really pretentious ”views about what Black Liberation looked like in St. Louis.” He was very concerned with keeping the peace. Staying moderate. He wasn't really in the interest of shaking things up or revolutionizing what freedom would look like, and that's what abolitionism was truly about. It was about developing what Black freedom could look like specifically in America, and he was very much of the impression that that would not happen overnight – that it shouldn't happen overnight. And if it did, it would tear down the efforts he and his colleagues have put into building St. Louis.

Washington University researchers on Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021, at the university’s Danforth Campus in St. Louis, Missouri. The group has been looking at the history of the university as part of a class entitled “Rethinking WashU’s Relation to Enslavement: Past, Present, and Future.”

Back row from left: Adam Teich, a senior from San Francisco, California, Aidan Smyth, a junior from Bethesda, Maryland, Carl Craver, a professor of philosophy, Iver Bernstein, a professor of history, and Cecilia Wright, a junior from Los Angeles, California. 

Front row: Nkemjika Emenike, a junior from Las Vegas, Nevada, Ja’Lynn Crenshaw, a freshman from San Antonio, Texas, Grant Solomon, a freshman from Laurel, Maryland, Charlie Fallon, a freshman from Phoenix, Arizona and Lia Greenfield-Gordon, a freshman from the Bronx, New York.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Washington University researchers on Dec. 9 at the university’s Danforth Campus in St. Louis. The group has been looking at the history of the university as part of a class. Back row from left: Adam Teich; Aidan Smyth; Carl Craver, a professor of philosophy; Iver Bernstein, a professor of history; and Cecilia Wright. Front row: Nkemjika Emenike, Ja’Lynn Crenshaw, Grant Solomon, Charlie Fallon and Lia Greenfield-Gordon.

Lewis-Thompson: To that point, in the runup to the Civil War there were a lot of conversations about the emancipation of enslaved Black people. Iver, can you explain what it meant to be an abolitionist at that time and what it meant to support colonization instead?

Bernstein: To be an abolitionist in the 1830s, say in 1834, when William Greenleaf Eliot steps off the riverboat and arrives in St. Louis from the northeast, was to be part of an embattled minority. Abolitionists are routinely subject to violent attacks, both rhetorical and physical. The lynching of Francis McIntosh, which is a critically important event in St. Louis history, happens not long after Eliot arrives.

And one of the reasons why Eliot, as the students have so, so fantastically, so beautifully revealed in their article, one of the reasons why Eliot is so opposed to any sympathy at all, any human empathy for Francis McIntosh is because he believes that McIntosh either was an abolitionist, a free Black man — a mixed-race American citizen of [Pittsburgh], who is arriving on a boat in St. Louis, and Eliot fervently believes that McIntosh deserves the lynching, that McIntosh deserves it because he is an abolitionist or connected to abolitionists somehow.

Lewis-Thompson: Can you talk a little bit more about colonization? Can you describe to me what that looked like?

Bernstein: Part of what made it credible is images of the Exodus in the Old Testament, the notion that large groups of people could somehow find freedom through long, long migrations. Part of what made it credible was this pessimism that Nkemjika was talking about, which is simply a fear that the race problem, as Eliot would have put it, was more than America could handle. That the social order simply would fracture. And that Black freedom and Black people's freedom would best be realized outside the confines of the United States that would be torn apart by this struggle. So that was a pessimistic view, very different from grassroots Black opinion and from the abolitionist perspective.

A portrait of Washington University cofounder William Greenleaf Eliot hands above a fireplace mantel on Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021, at the university’s Holmes Lounge on its Danforth Campus in St. Louis, Missouri.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
A portrait of Washington University co-founder William Greenleaf Eliot is displayed above a fireplace mantel on Dec. 9 at the university’s Holmes Lounge on its Danforth Campus in St. Louis.

Lewis-Thompson: Eliot supported the idea of colonization, which essentially meant sending free Black people to a colonized Liberia. And some of his comments about where Black people fit in U.S. society are really racist. In a speech to the St. Louis Young Men's Colonization Society, he said, "To place Black people upon an equal footing to whites, to give them equal political, social and civil privileges with the whites is quite an impractical thing in our day, and probably will be impracticable for many generations to come, if not forever." Nkemjika, can you walk me through the process of establishing a complete picture of Eliot that deviates from the narrative that has been there for a while?

Emenike: Yeah, I mean, I think that's the big question of this article, like who is Eliot truly? And I think he was someone in speeches, in writings, in newspaper clippings, it would always be regardless of his own beliefs, he took the stance because it was impractical. Because he didn't think that it was right to take a strictly abolitionist stance. But at some point, you kind of have to realize that that is his personal belief. You can no longer separate from — regardless of what he thinks — this is the stance that he took, and this is what he said, because he's saying what he believes.

And I think, to paint a complete picture of Eliot is to recognize that his roots in colonization, his writing of the story of Archer Alexander, are all rooted in this sort of paternalism and patronizing view of Black people. He sees himself as — I think the term “white savior” is a really good word, but he sees himself as this person who knows best. He is educated. He's a religious leader. He's a philanthropist. He doesn't trust that Black people know what their own freedom is. He doesn't trust that Black people know what their own liberation could look like. And he's a firm believer that whatever that would look like — that's not going to happen in America, and that any effort towards that is frivolous. It's pointless.

Listen: Wash U's co-founder wasn't an abolitionist

Lewis-Thompson: Did Eliot ever own any enslaved people?

Emenike: The data that we have, we did some research. We also have a student, Charlie Fallon, who in his research of the 1840 census, I believe, listed a W.G. Eliot as owning one enslaved person. There are other documents that show that Eliot had bought an enslaved person with the intention of freeing them, but there's not really any documentation of what happens to that enslaved person after he had bought them. So, from what we know he had owned at least one or two enslaved people he had bought with the purpose of freeing them.

Lewis-Thompson: So Eliot was also a Unitarian minister. The church took a strong stance against slavery, and Eliot was opposed to the church drawing the line in the sand. He avoided talking about it from the pulpit, and he even resigned from a leadership role in the church. And yet, he published an entire story about Archer Alexander, a Black man who fought for his freedom with this information.

Nkemjika, how did that change the interpretation of his relationship with Archer Alexander?

Emenike: I think understanding all that background of where he was on the spectrum of Unitarian ministers and their anti-slavery stances, just from speaking with the First Unitarian Church, and also just doing a bit of research about Unitarianism in the 1800s. And how many of them were, in fact, radical abolitionists, I think it kind of put into perspective that what Eliot was writing truly was a product of his time in St. Louis. I think it kind of put into perspective that he was conservative even for his time, even for his community of people. Even for his religious community, he was very conservative in his beliefs of slavery. And I think, thinking of that, in terms of the Archer Alexander story, he just views Archer Alexander as just the exception. He doesn't foresee abolitionism as the next step.

A plaque honoring Washington University founder William Greenleaf Eliot is embedded in the ground beneath the Brookings archway, between the entrances to North and South Brookings Hall on Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021, at the university’s Danforth Campus in St. Louis, Missouri.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
A plaque honoring Washington University co-founder William Greenleaf Eliot is embedded in the ground beneath the Brookings archway, between the entrances to North and South Brookings Hall, on Dec. 9 at the university’s Danforth Campus in St. Louis.

Lewis-Thompson: While this research included professors, students were putting in the work digging into all these documents. What led to having students involved in this kind of extensive research?

Bernstein: That's really the great story here. And it's the piece of this in a way that has been most important to me and to my co-instructor, and dare I say, co-conspirator Carl Craver, professor of philosophy at Wash U, who is spiritually at my side in this interview. Carl and I connected on the idea that students should be not just finding these documents, which is the usual mode for undergraduate research assistants, but they should be actively involved in the work and the intellectual work of interpreting them. Not only have these students written or set in motion the writing of new histories of the university, but they've done it in a kind of plain-spoken and accessible way, which I hope will provide a resource for the broader community.

Lewis-Thompson: Nkemjika, you're a history major, and it's something that you're really passionate about. What's been your biggest takeaway from the work that you've done in this class?

Emenike: My biggest takeaway from this project, being able to truly understand the impacts of a historical research experience is really important, I think, for me to see and I think for many other people to see who are in the humanities, who are in research. And I think the big question we get is, “Why does this matter?” And this is why it matters: because this history — as an institution — we act on precedent. Everyone acts on precedent. The past is directly responsible for how we conduct ourselves right now. And this history of Eliot — of our founders, and their nuanced, often very violent relationship with enslavement — is an important history to take back when considering who is Wash U for.

Lewis-Thompson: This course is part of a much larger effort by the university to examine its involvement in the institution of slavery. Earlier this year, the university joined more than 80 colleges and universities, and I'm sure that number is still growing, that are studying their ties to slavery. I reached out to Chancellor Andrew Martin for this story. And in a statement, he said it's crucial for the university to take a look at its past, "through research projects and our involvement in initiatives like Universities Studying Slavery, our faculty, students and staff will gain a better understanding of our history and the way slavery and racism have impacted our campus and our relationship with the St. Louis Community.” This question is for both of you: What do you make of this support from the university?

Bernstein: It is something to be applauded. Chancellor Martin is taking an extremely valuable and bold position when he endorses this kind of research and this kind of searching self-examination of the university. That said, I don't think self-congratulations, and I don't think that's what he's involved in, perhaps now, just the opposite. But self-congratulation is and has been the usual sort of branding the mode of presentation of not just Washington University, but many of the universities who are now involved in this kind of work. And what I love about the students' research is that it presents itself in a question-asking mode, which is very different from self-congratulation.

Emenike: Yeah, I think it's necessary work. I don't say this to contradict Iver but I don't see any congratulations for an institution researching the ways in which it's contributed to the harm of the people in its community. That's necessary work. That's work that needs to be done. That's work that should have been done. And so I'm glad it's being done now. And I'm glad with the students that I've been working with, and the professors I've been working with, that it's being done by people who truly care and who are taking efforts to really handle this information as delicately, but also at the same time as aggressively as possible. Looking at this information, being understanding of it, but then asking the hard, aggressive questions as to why? Why is this happening? How has our university contributed to different types of harm? I think it's a really important question.

Lewis-Thompson: How do you hope the university and the St. Louis region view Eliot going forward?

Washington University’s Brookings Hall on Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021, at its Danforth Campus in St. Louis, Missouri.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Washington University’s Brookings Hall on Dec. 9 in St. Louis.

Bernstein: I hope they regard Eliot as the beginning of a conversation rather than the end of a conversation. So often, he has been regarded as a kind of self-evident fact. And I think our region has benefited to think that it has this abolitionist hero that somehow compensates for Missouri as a slave state and St. Louis as a slavery city. It's been an unearned pride — an unearned pride about Eliot, which should be transformed into a nuanced and complex understanding of Eliot that opens up questions and doesn't close them off. Eliot is not a brand. He's a complex historical figure rooted in a troubling and still present reality.

Emenike: I think a big thing for me is just understanding that history and people, they're not one dimensional. And we know that when we think about things in the present day, and we think about people in our own lives, but suddenly, when we think about people in history, and people in the 1800s, we don't think about all the nuances and all the different experiences that they have, that are making up the decisions that they make. And that's not to excuse what Eliot has done, but rather to say that he is, at the end of the day, a product of many different forms of enforcing white supremacy oppression.

I think I would just like the university to understand that it's not that Eliot was a good guy, bad guy. It's that Eliot was very, very complex — and understanding what that means for an institution that was founded in some of the country's most stark periods of racial violence and racial reckoning. What does that mean? I think just taking into the full context of Eliot, he wasn't just this philanthropist who built up all these institutions in St. Louis, but he also had some very problematic, at best, views of where Black people who made up a good amount of the city, what their place would be in St. Louis.

Follow Marissanne on Twitter: @Marissanne2011

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Kayla Drake. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

Marissanne is the afternoon newscaster at St. Louis Public Radio.