Blight is one of the foremost experts on the Civil War, Reconstruction, and African-American History. One of Blight’s chief reasons for visiting was to help Hopkins reconcile with its racial past, a topic that Eli Sabin ’18 wrote on in a September Razor article revealing that Edward Hopkins, the namesake of Hopkins school, owned a slave. This discovery raised some tough questions about how the student body should view its founder and his legacy some 350 years later.
Subverting expectations, Blight started Assembly ignoring race and history. Instead, he posed a question to the student body: “How many of you are going to run for offce?” Assembly was silent, except for a few reluctant hands. Then one seventh grader raised his hand high and proud. Blight zoned in on the young student responding, “Start local, get involved, it’s all about local politics. Run for offce!” Everyone cheered. “Elections matter. God, do they matter,” he added.
The audience found Blight to be a talented orator. Many students were engrossed by his stories. At the end of Assembly, he received an avid standing ovation. Dylan Sloan ’18 described why he enjoyed Blight’s visit: “I appreciated that he didn’t come across as having an agenda or key point he wanted to prove. I enjoyed how he responded to questions by going on tangents and relating different ideas instead of just providing a succinct, factual answer.”
Eventually Blight reached the anticipated topic: Edward Hopkins and slavery. Blight served on Yale University’s Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming that changed the name of Calhoun College to Grace Hopper College. Yale’s chief reason for the renaming was that the college’s namesake, John Calhoun, was a staunch advocate of slavery.
Blight imparted some advice on how Hopkins should approach its moral quandary, “I don’t have the answer for what you should do about Hopkins except that you should use caution. First you need deliberative process. You need deliberation, you need committees, or commissions or groups that seriously look at that past. Get the facts right, get the details right. Secondly, you need humility. You learn how to be good because you have examined some evil and it makes you humble.” Blight did not provide the magic answer detailing exactly what Hopkins should do; instead, he provided a process for which the community could approach the topic.
The most tangible advice Blight gave was that, when evaluating historical fgures, it is important to consider their “principal legacy.” What was Edwards Hopkins most famous for? Blight asked Hopkins to consider every aspect of a person’s life, public and private, before resolving upon a final judgement. Sa- bin commented, “As we continue this discussion about Hopkins’ racial history and how we want to recognize it on campus, I hope these ideas will help us make good decisions that bring us together as a community and promote the values of the school.”
Despite how pressing the question of Edwards Hopkins might seem, Blight was not surprised by the dilemma. “Everybody’s history is tainted,” he said. Blight pointed out that for centuries people have struggled to confront their past. People reform and adapt from their mistakes. Blight said this cycle of loss and recreation is as old as the Bible: “It’s the oldest story. The destruction of Jerusalem. The enslavement of people. Some of them traveled great horrifc distances to return from exile, to recreate that which was destroyed because they themselves had become so corrupt. The story of tainted history is as old as history.” According to Blight, history is the cycle of destruction and creation. Civilization takes two steps forward only to take one step back. Blight believes that this cycle is essential for the advancement of mankind. As Blight stated, “Almost every great reform has been born from crisis.”
In his Q&A session, Blight answered questions to a packed crowd in the lower library about history, politics today, and his work as a historian. He talked about his principle study of memory, namely “public memory and public knowledge. The stories people believe, that they hear from their church, school, parents, and grandparents, are impenetrable, not even by fancy historians writing books.” On the current state of politics, Blight said that “For every revolution, there is an equal and opposite counterrevolution,” and that Trump “traces back to Reagan and the backlash against the 60s, welfare, feminism, and civil rights.” He added, “We can use history today to fgure out what’s happening, what we can do next, and what we can hope to happen next.”
He also spoke to the way that Americans struggle to reconcile with 250 years of slavery. “We still learn that our history is essentially about progress, that Americans are freedom-loving people destined for more freedom,” he said. “Yet we have a past full of exploitation, tragedy, brutality, and triumph. The US is a contradiction. What else is new? The world is fascinated by us and our contradictions.”
Professor Blight is also the director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery at Yale, the frst of its kind in the world when it was founded in 1998. The center is “dedicated to the investigation and dissemination of knowledge concerning slavery and its legacies across all borders and all time.”
Even though the last few centuries have told the tale of gradual victory for liberalism, Blight stated that each reform required the leadership of an individual: “It did take a certain coalition of courage and a coalition of impulses to pass the ’64 and ’65 Civil Rights Act, and a great deal of presidential courage by Lyndon Johnson.” And so Blight’s visit circled back to his opening words. Blight wants Hopkins’s students, the next generation, to become politicians, get involved, and be those who ensure that the future is a better place.