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Rider University task force will evaluate Van Cleve house, other possible ties to slavery

Seeking to learn more about its potential ties to slavery, Rider University has created a task force to research its possible historical relationship and connection with slavery and enslaved people.

The Task Force on Rider University and the History of Slavery, which was formed last month, expects to present its report in the fall, said Rider University spokesman Kristine Brown. The task force members include faculty, staff, students and alumni.

Brown said Rider University already is aware of one such possible connection to slavery, through the Van Cleve Alumni House. The house, which is located at the front of the campus, is on land that was owned by Benjamin Van Cleve.

Van Cleve was born in 1739 and fought in the Revolutionary War. He owned at least one enslaved person, tax records show. Although little is known about the history of the house, records suggest that he acquired the land in 1773, Brown said. The house was later owned by Benjamin White.

In announcing the formation of the task force, Rider University President Gregory Dell’Omo said that “to continue honoring a person (Van Cleve) while also living in ignorance of such appalling facts (as Van Cleve’s ownership of a slave) is simply no longer acceptable.

“Across the nation, many institutions, organizations and individuals are seeing historical markers that perpetuate slavery, racism and oppression with refreshing clarity. Rider University will not shy away from the acknowledgment of such markers,” he said.

Princeton University recently acted to change the name of its Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs to simply the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, in response to Wilson’s alleged racist tendencies.

Also, the Princeton Public School District is examining whether to rename the John Witherspoon Middle School. The school was named after Witherspoon, who was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the sixth president of Princeton University. He owned slaves.

Rider University officials said no decision will be made regarding the renaming of the Van Cleve Alumni House until after the task force releases its report. The university will use examples, such as the Van Cleve House, as an opportunity for education.

“As an institution of higher learning, we have a valuable role to play in increasing our knowledge and understanding of the abhorrent institution of slavery,” Dell’Omo said. “I look forward to the task force’s recommendations on how we can deepen our efforts to do just that.”

Rider University Professor Brooke Hunter, who teaches American history, is preparing an event to educate the public about the history of slavery in New Jersey. Hunter, who is the official Lawrence Township historian, has researched slavery in Lawrence Township.

The Van Cleve house was part of the 140-acre Glenburnie Farm that Rider purchased in 1956 for its new Lawrence Township campus, Brown said. Rider was originally known as the Trenton Business College and was located in Trenton.

The building, which has historically been referred to as the Van Cleve House by Rider, was used as a student residence in the early 1960s, Brown said. It was renovated in 1969 and became the admissions office. It is now the home of the alumni relations office.

The history of the house is not clear, according to “A Guide to Lawrenceville’s Historic Landmarks.” The 1992 booklet, which was prepared by the Lawrence Township Historic Preservation Advisory Committee and the defunct Cultural and Heritage Advisory Committee, lists historic properties in the township.

“Owned by Rider University, this unusual example of Italianate (architectural) style shows no evidence of having been an 18th-century house. It has a distinctive curved roofline and decorative trim,” the booklet said.

Charles Tichy, who was the historic restoration architect for the state Division of Parks and Forestry, inspected the house in the 1970s, the booklet said. He found clear evidence that the current house had been constructed around an earlier building.

Meanwhile, the Task Force on Rider and the History of Slavery will find out more about Rider University and its relationship to slavery. The task force is being co-chaired by Brooke Hunter and Evelyn McDowell.

Hunter is an associate professor of history and a dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. McDowell is an associate professor and the chairman of the Department of Accounting.

McDowell also is the president of the National Society Sons and Daughters of the United States Middle Passage, which is a lineage society dedicated to preserving the memory and history of the artifacts and landmarks of slavery. Members trace their descent from enslaved persons.

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