What’s in a name? For NJ university, a founding father who was also a slave owner
GALLOWAY — The metal bust of one of New Jersey's Declaration of Independence signers, Richard Stockton, has caused a stir on the campus of the university named in his honor.
Tuesday night, the Stockton Student Senate held a forum to discuss what should be done with the bust that was donated to the school in 1982.
According to Diane D'Amico, a spokeswoman for the school, about 100 students attended the forum and 15 spoke. The forum focused on Stockton's owning of slaves and other aspects of his historical profile.
The discussion about the bust on the South Jersey campus comes at a time when Confederate monuments across the country have been put in the crosshairs by those whole believe that certain historical figures should not be celebrated.
The debate turned violent and deadly in Charlottesville, Virginia, where protestors clashed over the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee.
In the first month of the school year, the campus has also been hit by flyers spread by white supremacists, which was another reason the forum was convened.
D'Amico said the bust had originally been on display in the university president's office but was moved to the library several years ago. The administration formed the Stockton Exhibition Committee, which led to the decision to move the bust back to the president's office, according to D'Amico.
Last month, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Lori Vermeulen sent an email to the Stockton community announcing the removal of the bust, calling it a temporary move.
“As you are probably aware, Richard Stockton was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. What you may not realize is that he was also a slave owner. Further, he was a controversial figure in his time,” Vermeulen wrote.
She said the school’s mission to “develop engaged and effective citizens with a commitment to life-long learning and the capacity to adapt to change in a multi-cultural, interdependent world,” presented an opportunity “for our students to learn about the facts surrounding Richard Stockton’s place in American history as well as in Stockton’s history.”
Janiece Calderon, a student senator, said students were not aware the bust had been moved until the decision garnered a lot of press attention when they returned to campus earlier this month. She said the forum was meant to be an opportunity to inform students about the history of the bust, but also the man.
Brian Moore, also a student senator, said the school was named after Stockton because of his role in signing the Declaration, but that did not mean he had a real connection to the school itself.
"It was something that was always kind of an issue for people of color on our campus," he said. "Now that the administration took the action of removing it from the library to then put it back up in the president's office, a lot of that angered many people of color and minorities on our campus who believe that Richard Stockton does not have a place on our campus as a previous slave owner. They just do not feel that he has a place on our campus or in the history of our campus as he was not really relevant to the founding of our university."
Moore said the Senate will take the students' feedback.
"The Senate does believe that the bust should be taken down from our university," he said. "It's just not something that represents us as a university, and since we did cut off the name from Richard Stockton College of New Jersey to Stockton University, we just don't think it's necessary to have his legacy on our campus."
The school opted to change its name from Richard Stockton College of New Jersey to Stockton University in February 2015 when it attained university status.
“Since its founding in 1969, Stockton has had many names, but one consistent mission: excellence in teaching, dedication to learning, and a tradition of community service,” President Herman Saatkamp says on the school's website. “In becoming a university, we honor those values while continuing our journey as an environment for excellence and a partner in New Jersey’s social and economic development.”
Moore called Stockton a "placeholder" for the school, "a name to reference back to as someone relevant to the history of New Jersey."
Calderon said that while the students want the bust removed, there was also concern that it was moved from the library without consultation of the students.
"Our university prides itself on its diversity and its experience," she said. "We as a student body don't feel that Richard Stockton's name represents what our university is trying to move towards and continue."
She said that the bust is likely just the first step of a much larger initiative by the student body.
Moore agreed, saying the goal of their work now is to not only ensure that students today are comfortable being on campus, but also that future students will be in a place where they can feel safe and accepted.
"We come here to get educated on this, and I think that's one of the great things about Stockton University is that we can come here and learn about the history of Richard Stockton, and then now come to the conclusion that it's wrong to glorify him on our campus at any point in our history, right now or in the future."
Moore said he believes this can be a "teaching moment" for the school and help the campus to move forward.
"The white supremacist group coming on our campus really kind of kicked us into gear and made us active and gave us an active role on this issue rather than being reactionary. We're trying to be productive and stay ahead of it so that if any incident happens like this again we can be proactive rather than reactive."
D'Amico said that while the flyers are a separate issue from the bust, it does lead to a larger issue the university is addressing.
"It has come up because students are interested in the larger issues of historical perspective, diversity and free speech on campus," she said. "The forum was an opportunity for them to speak about their concerns in a safe and respectful environment."
D'Amico said this is not the first time there have been questions raised about the bust, but that the issue has "received more attention because of national questions raised about America's history and monuments."
A complicated legacy
Stockton was born in Princeton and eventually graduated from the College of New Jersey, which is now known as Princeton University. As a politician and a lawyer, he also served as a trustee of the school from 1791 until 1828. The school's website confirms that Stockton "reputedly owned several slaves," and released one in 1823.
According to author Douglas Harper, slaves were not uncommon in New Jersey up to and through the revolutionary period. In a study on slavery in the northern states, Harper said slaves accounted for 12 percent of the colony's population at the time of the war. As late as the 1800 census, Harper said there were still more than 12,000 slaves in the state. It was not until 1846 that Harper said slavery was officially abolished in the state.
The question of what Stockton did after the war is more of a question as he was taken into custody by the British. At the forum, Dean Robert Gregg of the School of General Studies told the students that Stockton may have signed a letter of allegiance to King George in December 1776.
According to the Society of the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, Stockton was "the only signer to be put in irons, starved and imprisoned under brutal conditions by the British" after signing the Declaration. The society said Stockton was captured in November 1776 and was flailed in Perth Amboy before being sent to prison in New York.
During his imprisonment, he endured conditions that George Washington described as "shocking and inhuman treatment." He was paroled by General William Howe on the condition that he did not participate in any effort relating to the war after his release.
The society said claims that Stockton swore allegiance to the crown after his imprisonment also cannot be confirmed.
"This claim is based on a private letter quoting a rumor spread by an enemy of Stockton," the society said. "There is absolutely no proof this occurred."
A legacy worth remembering
The bust of Stockton at the school is not the only one to one of the state's signers of the Declaration of Independence. A much larger statue of Stockton stands as part of the National Statuary Hall Collection at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
Stockton is one of six signers of the Declaration to be memorialized with such a statue. Since the controversy over statues started over the summer Sen. Cory Booker has said he will propose legislation to remove Confederate statues from the collection.
The Architect of the Capitol's website describes Stockton as "an illustrious lawyer, jurist, legislator and signer of the Declaration of Independence." In addition to the Continental Congress, he also served on the Governing Council of New Jersey and the New Jersey Supreme Court.
He was at one point, according to the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, elected chief justice of the state Supreme Court but declined the position to resume his law practice. He also finished in a tie in the race to be governor of New Jersey in 1776, but declined that position as well.
The society notes on its website that Stockton practiced law in Princeton and Newark and was "recognized as one of the most eloquent lawyers in the colonies."
Stockton died in February 1781 and was buried in Princeton. His former family home, Morven, served as governor's mansion from 1954 until 1981 and is now a state-owned museum. His son Richard was a state senator and four generations of Stocktons served in Congress.
In addition to Stockton, the other New Jersey delegates to sign the Declaration of Independence were John Hart, Abraham Clark, Francis Hopkinson, John Witherspoon, and John Hart. Witherspoon, who went on to serve as president of Princeton University, also owned slaves.
The town of Princeton has a main street named after Witherspoon, as well as at least one business and a school. Princeton itself was the subject of student protests last year, but not because of Witherspoon. Last April, the school decided to keep the name of Woodrow Wilson, a former president of the school and the United States on its buildings despite questions about his being a racist.
D'Amico said at this time the exhibition committee is "researching the history and legacy of Richard Stockton and presenting that to the Stockton Community" as it decides what future steps will be taken.
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Contact reporter Adam Hochron at 609-359-5326 or Adam.Hochron@townsquaremedia.com