Reflecting Reality: Tufts’ History as a Vestige of Settler Colonialism

When asked what he would do with a “bleak hill” in Medford, Charles Tufts replied, “I will put a light on it.” This is the story of how Tufts University was founded—at least the one Tufts chooses to highlight. But Tufts’ history does not start there; it begins centuries earlier. This hill—also known as Walnut Tree Hill and later College Hill—was not bleak or empty. It was, and still is, the site of many years of trauma and harm endured by Indigenous and enslaved peoples. While not widely known or publicized, enslavement and displacement are inextricably connected to Tufts’ past, present, and future. Currently, the Tufts campus is marred with buildings, residence halls, and landmarks that pay tribute to problematic figures in its history. As the student body of this university, we must ask: are these the stories we want to remember? Is this the history we want to honor?

Slavery and settler colonialism created the foundation on which Tufts and many other American universities were built. However, when we think about the legacy of slavery and trauma at Tufts, it is vital to center the stories of those who endured this harm—not those who enacted it. Tufts must reconcile with its challenging past, rectify current sources of harm, and reflect the values it espouses on its campus.

Tufts is built upon the unceded ancestral tribal lands of the Massachusett, Wampanoag, and Pokanoket Tribes. While the dispossession of Indigenous groups from their homelands occurred before its 1852 founding, Tufts, to this day, occupies and benefits from stolen land. In 2019, the Tufts Community Union Senate urged the University to “create an official land acknowledgment, increase the amount of Indigenous presence on campus, and raise awareness of Tufts history with Indigenous peoples.” Since then, Tufts, largely through student-led activism, has created a Native American and Indigenous Studies minor, celebrated Indigenous Peoples Day, and formalized a Land Acknowledgement Committee in charge of drafting a formal statement. 

To grapple with its position as a vestige of settler-colonialism, Tufts must take full responsibility for the displacement of Indigenous groups and erasure of culture which occurred on our campus. Recognizing that we are on stolen land must go beyond empty sentiments and move towards tangible changes such as increasing support for Indigenous people on campus, student organizations like Indigenous Students’ Organization at Tufts, and national movements such as Land Back. A land acknowledgment, while a helpful first step and tool for remembrance, is not enough to rectify Tufts’ legacy of settler colonialism. Land is more than parcels to buy and control: there are communities, histories, and people connected to it. Tufts must move forward with respect for the land it occupies. 

Beyond acknowledging Tufts’ presence on stolen lands, Indigenous voices and histories should be highlighted and uplifted. The names, stories, and histories of the Indigenous groups who lived on Tufts’ campus remain untold and unheard. These unknown stories point to the larger pattern of cultural erasure which occurred as a result of colonization and the establishment of the university. This forgotten and violent history entangles Tufts within the larger narrative of slavery and dispossession in the United States. 

Even the name “Tufts” creates a historical callback to the complicated history of slavery on the university’s land. The land Tufts is located on was once part of the Ten Hills Plantation, a slaveholding estate of more than 500 acres. The land was passed between the hands of numerous enslavers, and eventually a portion of the plantation was inherited by Charles Tufts, which he donated to create Tufts University. While he did not enslave people, Charles Tufts’ wealth was built through slavery, and his land holdings were a direct result of his familial connections to slavery in the Medford area. The Tufts family owned many acres of land and multiple enslaved people. These enslavers included Dr. Simon Tufts, Joseph Tufts, and Cotton Tufts. Given the slaveholding connections of the Tufts family and Walnut Hill, it is clear that the land upon which Tufts University was built is imbued with the generational trauma of slavery. In its name and location, Tufts University continues the legacy of harm and trauma experienced by enslaved persons. 

Beyond its founding, Tufts University contains further connections to the legacy of slavery in the United States. P.T. Barnum, a founding trustee and notable benefactor of Tufts, donated considerable funds as well as our mascot, Jumbo. However, Barnum was also the enslaver of a woman named Joice Heth, who he used as a circus exhibit in his early career. Barnum falsely claimed that she was the wet nurse of George Washington and forcibly removed her teeth to make her appear older. After her death in 1936, he held a public autopsy of her body, continuing to grossly exploit Heth even in her death. Barnum, a powerful figure in the early history of Tufts, had a direct connection to slavery despite publicly supporting abolition. Today, Barnum is memorialized on Tufts’ campus with a building carrying his namesake and the mascot he gave to the school. 

Barnum Hall is not the only building on campus where problematic figures have been memorialized. The third Tufts president, Elmer Capen, is accredited with building a relationship with P.T. Barnum to secure financial contributions to the school. Capen’s presidency is memorialized through Capen House, his personal residence which was later donated to the school, and now functions as the Africana Center. Cousens Gymnasium is named after the sixth president of the university, John Albert Cousens. During his tenure, Cousens instituted ethnic quotas from 1930-1940 to quell concerns that newly-arrived European immigrants would not over-enroll. Wren Hall is named after Dean Frank G. Wren who held xenophobic views. In reference to an influx of immigrants to the area, he stated in 1918 “the foreign element is creeping in.” Members of the Tufts community at all levels are complicit in this history. Examples of white supremacy, xenophobia, and the trauma endured by enslaved people can be seen on every corner of the campus, but have yet to be reckoned with on a university-wide level. 

Although the past cannot be undone, Tufts can learn from its mistakes, atone for its transgressions, and recognize the trauma it has caused. The legacy of slavery, Indigenous genocide, and displacement should not be hidden in the annals of old history books and archives, as this legacy is a part of the foundation of this university. Generations of trauma endured on this landscape cannot and should not be forgotten, and to do so perpetuates cycles of harm. 

Recently, Tufts has made several efforts to become more antiracist and acknowledge some of its past harms. The university published an internal audit report on antiracism at Tufts in February of 2021. The report concluded that to move forward as an antiracist institution, and understand the complexity of its racist past, Tufts should create a task force dedicated to analyzing the history of racism at Tufts. While understanding the history of trauma and slavery at Tufts is a crucial first step, it cannot be the only step. The university as a whole needs to develop a greater capacity for equity, awareness, and action. 

One path forward is to rename buildings that pay tribute to Tufts’ racist history. Several colleges and universities have made attempts to remove names of racist figures from their campuses, and it is time for Tufts to do the same. For example, Clemson University removed John C. Calhoun from their Honors College, and Princeton University removed Woodrow Wilson from the name of one of their residential colleges. In 2016, South Hall was renamed Harleston Hall to honor Bernard Harleston, a former dean, and the first African American tenured Tufts professor. Barnum Hall, the Cousens Gymnasium, Wren Hall, and Capen House could all be renamed to reflect the legacies and contributions of Black members of the Tufts community. Bernard Harleston was also honored through the Tufts Leading While Black Project, which seeks to highlight influential Black leaders at all levels of the university. While not an exhaustive list, the honorees of this project represent leaders and visionaries on our campus that could be considered in renaming these buildings. 

As an institution with enormous resources at its disposal, Tufts has the power to make a significant impact on racial justice and create a new legacy. Does it have the will to make a difference? Tufts has benefitted and profited from the exploitation of enslaved and Indigenous peoples; it is now time to ask how Tufts can repair the damages and repay these groups. If Tufts truly wants to embody a “light on a hill,” our campus must reflect the voices and stories that have been silenced, forgotten, or have yet to be told.