Putnam’s is named after UB founder who had racist views

UB says it recognizes James O. Putnam ‘strictly’ for role at university

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Students eat at Putnam’s Marketplace Eatery in the Student Union and travel down Putnam Way. But they may not know James O. Putnam believed black people were an “inferior race” and introduced anti-Catholic legislation.

Putnam served as a New York state senator after helping to found UB in 1846 and while serving on the university council. Putnam later became UB chancellor in 1895. He used his political platform to discuss slavery, an issue he flip-flopped on, as did many during his day.

And his speeches reveal his complex views on race and religion.

He called white people a "superior race" and also showed sympathy toward slaves. He passed anti-Catholic legislation, but had compassion for Roman Catholic believers.

A Spectrum investigation also uncovered that Putnam may have tried to reshape his legacy. Either he or his publishers edited out pro-slavery comments Putnam made in the 1850s for a book of his speeches printed in the 1880s. While his views on slavery may have shifted, his sense of black people’s worth was clear. 

In an 1860 speech, Putnam said, “In the midst of the white race, he is an inferior in every relation, bond or free, the slave of caste if not of law.” 

The Spectrum questioned dozens of students –– none of whom knew anything about Putnam –– and even surprised faculty and UB administrators, who also were unaware of Putnam’s history and views.

UB spokesperson Cory Nealon had to do research to learn about Putnam and found that the naming of Putnam Way occurred in 1973 and was “not an endorsement of his policies or legacy” as a politician. 

“The name was selected strictly in recognition of his role as UB chancellor and founder,” he said. “Many of the views Putnam expressed on race and religion in the 19th century do not reflect those of the university today.”

Putnam’s Marketplace Eatery was named because of its “proximity to Putnam Way,” Nealon said. 

Some students felt uncomfortable once they learned about Putnam’s past. 

Devin Forde, a senior psychology and sociology major, called the name “damaging” and suggested some African American students would be insulted if they knew about Putnam’s legacy.

Students’ discomfort about Putnam’s past mirrors the discomfort felt by students and faculty across the country as they learn the backstories on the names of iconic campus buildings, monuments and halls. On some campuses –– such as Yale and Georgetown –– student and faculty protests have led universities to change the names of buildings. 

In 2015, Georgetown renamed two buildings named for university presidents who had authorized the sale of slaves to pay off campus debts. In 2017, Yale University renamed Calhoun College, originally named for pro-slavery statesman John C. Calhoun, Grace Hopper College. In July, Florida State University announced its plan to move a statue of pro-slavery school founder Francis Eppes VII from the school’s entrance. FSU didn’t rename a building bearing Eppes’ name despite a recommendation from a university advisory panel.

UB has yet to have its reckoning over a building name, but Neolan said UB recently formed a Campus Building and Landscape Naming Committee that is “in the process of developing policies and plans for the naming of old and new structures and places.” 

Another name on UB’s list might be Millard Fillmore, whose name graces the Millard Fillmore Academic Center. The Spectrum wrote about this in May 2017.

As U.S. president, Fillmore signed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which compelled northerners to return runaway slaves who had reached freedom to southern owners.

Nealon said UB strongly holds values of diversity, inclusion and mutual respect. He said UB is committed to these values, so “everyone in the UB community can study, teach, work and conduct research in an environment free of discrimination or hatred.”

Who was James O. Putnam?

Putnam, once Buffalo’s postmaster general, served on the university council for 32 years, according to UB’s website.

Under his leadership, the New York State Institute for the Study of Malignant Diseases –– later the Roswell Park Cancer Institute –– came to fruition, according to UB’s website.

But Putnam’s history as a statesman is mostly unknown at UB, and he had ties to the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party in the mid-19th century. 

The Know-Nothing Party ballooned in popularity through the 1850s and peaked by 1855. The party was divided on the issue of slavery, which ultimately caused its demise. The party nominated Fillmore in the 1856 presidential election, but the candidate lost with roughly one-fifth of the popular vote.

While on the university council, Putnam joined Buffalo’s local Know-Nothing council as one of the first members in 1854, according to Catholic historian Sister M. Felicity O’Driscoll. In a letter sent to the Buffalo Commercial Advertiser, the Know-Nothing council president Charles G. Irish Jr. wrote that his group hoped to “protect against any foreign earthly power or influence.”

“As it has been stated by our best and learned judges of the United States, a Roman Catholic in belief cannot become a citizen even though he may have taken the oath,” Irish wrote. 

Tyler Anbinder, a history professor at George Washington University, is the author of “Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850's.”

Anbinder said there were two kinds of people in the Know-Nothing Party: “zealous, anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant people” and others who joined because they thought the Republicans were radical and Democratic Party was too pro-slavery and in favor of low tariffs.

Anbinder said Putnam was “widely known as one of the leaders of the anti-Catholic movement in New York State.” 

Putnam sided with Protestants, who were historically at odds with Roman Catholics.

As a state senator, Putnam introduced the 1855 Church Property Bill. The bill called for lay people, not clergy, to take ownership of church property away from bishops.

At the time of Putnam’s bill, most Protestant congregations had a stake in their church’s property, but this was not the case with Roman Catholic churches. When Buffalo’s St. Louis Church rebelled against its bishop in the 1850’s, the Know-Nothing party –– and Putnam –– supported lay people’s right to church ownership.

Putnam, in his 1855 address to the New York State Senate, expressed a fear of Roman Catholic power in church interests. Putnam’s bill passed in April 1855 but it was never effectively followed by the church, despite its impact on other states’ bills across the country. 

Anbinder said the bill was “definitely” seen as anti-Catholic in the 1850s. He said the anti-Catholic sentiments of the 1850s parallel some of the anti-Muslim sentiments seen today.

“A lot of Americans, maybe a majority, thought that Catholics could not be good Americans, and that Catholicism was incompatible with American values,” Anbinder said.

Putnam’s views on race were complex, too, and some of Putnam’s records show attempts at historical revision.

Putnam, in an 1854 speech, said he “shared the sentiments” of statesmen like Fillmore when they approved the Compromise of 1850, which included the controversial Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

“The Compromise measures of 1850 were not destructive. They constituted a new bond, a new compact, in its moral force, between the free and the slave states, in relation to matters wholly independent,” Putnam said. 

“I have no sympathy with northern anti-slavery fanaticism. I have entertained extreme conservative sentiments on this subject. My opposition to the extension of the institution does not rest upon the humanity or the legalities of the relation of master and slave. Of these I say nothing; upon them I base neither sentiment or conduct; I look beyond and higher.”

But some records — written by Putnam and published in Buffalo — rewrite, delete and reimagine Putnam’s 1854 speech, according to a Spectrum investigation.

The republished speech, published in his own written collection 26 years later, features altered portions of the original speech recorded in Albany and kept by the Library of Congress.

Putnam’s statement, “I have no sympathy with northern anti-slavery fanaticism,” from his 1854 speech does not appear at all in his 1880 written collection.

But Putnam, in his original and written address collection, kept his reference to white people as “the superior race.” 

In an 1860 speech, his views on black people’s “inferior” status did not change, but he did throw his support behind Republican Party candidate Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln did not favor slavery’s western expansion at the time, but two years earlier, in 1858, said he didn’t want the “social and political equality of the white and black races.”

Putnam, in the speech, sympathized with Christian values and added black people’s “inferior” status was no reason why white people should enslave them.

“[It’s] no reason why we should demoralize our own posterity by establishing the institution of slavery over our western domain,” Putnam said.

“It is reason why we should treat with charity and tenderness these children of our Common Father — why, in every way which Christian philanthropy dictates and the law of our nature admits, we should seek his moral and social elevation.”

Jim Holstun is an English professor who teaches black literature prior to 1900.

Holstun said he’s done work that focused on slavery in Western New York but never knew about Putnam’s history. 

“When the rubber hit the road in the 1850s, these guys were supporting the Fugitive Slave Act,” Holstun said. “So they aren’t particularly awful, they’re kind of generally awful. His [views on race] are completely normal white abolitionist discourse, you can find many examples of precisely this sort of attitude among whites who fought in the Civil War, you can find it in Harriet Beecher Stowe and you can find it in others.”

Recognizing Putnam

Forde said he’s surprised to learn about the history of Putnam’s racial views.

“Being a black man myself, it is a bit discomforting but not surprising considering the racist history of this country, in general,” Forde said. “It may not seem as a big deal to some, however, to those that Putnam was referring to, it’s damaging.”

Forde said he wonders how incoming black and African American students would feel if they know Putnam’s history.

“It is our job as Americans to make sure we depart ourselves from things that aren’t welcoming because that is not what this country is about, as a UB student we can start by changing that name.”

Joshua Ideva, a junior chemical engineering major, said he eats at Putnam’s every day during the week.

Ideva said he understands why UB named things after Putnam given his role at the university but for him, the bad outweighs the good.

“I don’t fault the university, per se, but I think they should be a little bit more careful in the future and it is a good idea to educate people on what these [founders] have done, on their accomplishments and their disadvantages,” Ideva said.

Outside of Putnam’s history on UB’s “Past Presidents” page, not much is known at UB about the former senator. The brief abstract does not talk about Putnam in much detail.

Putnam’s face isn’t well known to the university community, but his portrait is hung on the fifth floor of Capen Hall, right down the hall from Millard Fillmore.

When The Spectrum interviewed UB President Satish Tripathi on Nov. 5, Tripathi discussed Fillmore’s legacy and his representation on campus.

Tripathi said discussions about Fillmore, such as the UB DIFCON series event in 2017, are important. He said the university, however, hasn’t really looked into changing Fillmore’s physical presence on campus. Tripathi said one way UB could recognize Fillmore is through looking at his past and also looking at how he’s viewed today.

Holstun said UB could substitute Putnam’s name with that of one of Buffalo’s writers and abolitionists such as James Monroe Whitfield or William Wells Brown. Still, he said, UB should be putting scholarship ahead of its renaming efforts. 

In May, The Spectrum reported a downward trend in black tenure-track faculty hires, from 58 in 2004 to 33 in 2017.

“That seems to be so much more important than worrying about whether Putnam Way should be Putnam Way,” Holstun said. “I mean, fine, rechristen it. But there is a tendency lately to almost focus exclusively on symbolic phenomena like this.”

Still, Holstun said symbolism is important and when UB names Putnam Way after the former state senator they are honoring him.

Anbinder said he’s certain UB has other important people to celebrate from its history who were less bigoted then Fillmore and Putnam.

“Putnam and Fillmore were known for being conservatives, not wanting to upset the South. On the other hand, there were lots of other people in Buffalo who oppose slavery and fought to end it,” Anbinder said. 

“Back in their day, those who opposed slavery were seen as radicals who did not deserve to be celebrated. But maybe now is the time to start.”

Benjamin Blanchet is the senior features editor and can be reached benjamin.blanchet@ubspectrum.com and @BenjaminUBSpec on Twitter.