The 1435th meeting of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences was held on Thursday, April 4th, 2014, in the Olin Library at Wesleyan University in Middletown. Some 30 members and their guests attended the lecture and some 20 remained for dinner.
The President of CAAS, Dr. Gregory Tignor welcomed the audience at 5 p.m. and thanked Ms. Patricia Tully for hosting the event. He introduced Dr. Ernest Kohorn, the immediate past President who continued the new tradition of giving a short biography of one of the founding members of the Academy.
Dr. Kohorn said that Ezra Stiles was instrumental in the founding of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences although he died four years before the Academy was formally incorporated by the state in 1799. Born in 1727 in North Haven, Stiles graduated from Yale at the age of 19, studied theology and was ordained aged 22. He resigned from the ministry in 1753 to study law. He practiced in New Haven but returned to the cloth two years later and became Pastor of the Second Congregational Church in Newport, Rhode Island. In 1764 Stiles helped establish the College in the English Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, now Brown University. While in Newport he improved his rudimentary knowledge of Hebrew and believed, as did many Christian scholars of the time, that facility with the text of the Old Testament in its original language was advantageous for proper translation and interpretation. With the arrival of British troops in 1776, Stiles left Newport and became pastor in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. In 1778 he was invited to become President of Yale. At first he was reluctant to accept because anticlericalism had driven a wedge between the citizens of Connecticut and Yale College, whose Board of Directors were all Congregational clergymen. He found this rift unsettling but eventually Yale’s need overcame his reluctance and he moved back to New Haven. It appears he had made the right choice because by 1784 he had made Yale the most popular and flourishing college in the United States. As President, Stiles was the first Professor of Semitics and required all students to study Hebrew. His first Commencement address was delivered in Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic. However by 1790 he was forced to face failure in instilling an interest in the language in the student body. The idea that the Hebrew words “Urim ve Tumim” (Light and Truth) on the Yale seal are there because of Ezra Stiles is not correct because this seal appears on Stiles’ own diploma. Ezra Stiles initiated Yale Medical School and conceived of the Connecticut Academy. It was thought that such an institution might heal the rift between civil and academic powers, present at that time. Six years later relations between the State and Yale College had improved by bringing the Governor and other officials into the governance of the college, bringing the 40 year old quarrel between Yale and the State Legislature to an end and making the creation of the Academy possible. Stiles died in 1795, four years before the Academy was incorporated by the State of Connecticut in 1799.
Ms. Tully then introduced the speaker for the evening, Lois Brown, Class of 1958 Distinguished Professor of African American Studies Program and Department of English, Wesleyan University. The title of the talk was “Re-Member Me: Race, Romance and the Civil War”. Professor Brown began with the idea that remembering history was linked to disremembering. It was important to think of what we remember and where. She focused on the Civil War because it was linked to race history. Harriet Tubman and Charlotte Forten were two black women who played important roles in the Civil War: one for her bravery and fortitude and one for her expansive diary. However, the records of these women have been hidden and “lost,” both because of their gender and their race. When the Civil War began Harriet Tubman was invited to go south with the army and worked first as a cook and nurse and then as an armed scout and a spy. In the Battle of Port Royal, which was an expedition of reconnaissance, Tubman brought out 300 slaves, including elderly parents, and defied the many bounties on her head. Tubman, the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war, guided the Combahee River Raid on rich, healthy plantations with a band of black soldiers. No soldier was lost and the raid liberated more than 750 slaves. She has been described as “the Moses of her time”, but the retelling of her story is shrouded. Charlotte Forten met Harriet Tubman often and was persuaded to go to South Carolina to join in the Civil War. She came from a dynasty of abolitionists and knew she must act to ease the oppression in the south. She was a teacher, an anthropologist and poet and the first black to teach the newly emancipated slaves in the south. She was also a prolific diarist but romanticized relationships and the environment in order to avoid the horrors of war and racism. She could not write about the massacre at Fort Wagner, a high price to pay for her convictions. Professor Brown ended by saying that we need to remember, or re-remember, and compose black history correctly so that the noble work of Tubman and Forten are not alone.