At Colby College, an honor for a former slave
WATERVILLE, Maine — At the elite college perched on a hill overlooking this former mill town, the buildings are named as you might expect.
The library honors the parents of a graduate. The theater is named for the 17th president. The tennis pavilion for generous donors to the school.
But now Colby College will have a building named after another sort of person entirely: a former slave who was the school janitor for 37 years starting right after the Civil War — a figure both beloved and disrespected by the college in his day.
Colby, like many colleges, is grappling with its complicated historical ties to slavery. Other schools, including Harvard, have done so only after outcry from students. Here, it took very little prompting for the president to coax his campus to confront this chapter of its history.
“This is one of those stories that we never should have buried. It should have been out front for us for a long time,” said president David Greene.
Greene didn’t rename just any building — he renamed his own house.
The two-story official home of the president is the first building visitors see when they wind up the drive to campus. Greene announced the new name this fall at a ceremony to launch a fund-raising campaign. That was the first time many people had heard the story of Samuel Osborne, the man who came to Maine with his family after being freed from bondage and once made the college’s fires, delivered the mail, and swept the floors.
The president’s home, made of brick with white trim like the rest of the school, is full of Colby traditions. The weather vane atop the cupola, for instance, is in the shape of a music staff, the first notes of a song about the hill where the school sits. The home’s new name is more of a metaphorical weather vane, signaling a change in campus culture.
“It feels like we’re turning in a new direction,” said Elizabeth Paulino, a senior who is co-president of student government.
Colby, located in one of the whitest states in the nation, has long had a reputation as a homogenous school for students of affluent families. Greene, since his arrival in 2014, has worked to change that culture, increasing the diversity of the student body and staff, and making it easier for students of modest means to attend and feel included.
This year’s freshman class is 28 percent students of color, up from 23 percent of the class that graduates in the spring. Twelve percent of the freshmen are the first in their families to attend college and 14 percent come from very needy families, according to the school.
When Paulino first came to Colby four years ago, she felt out of place. She is Dominican, from Worcester, and the first generation of her family to attend college. She considered transferring. Instead, she got involved.
She became more confident and more unapologetic in her effort to promote a diversity of people and perspectives. It’s gotten easier, she said, because the administration has now made this its priority, too.
“I’m not saying that Colby is this multicultural hub, because it most definitely is not, but we recognize that we have problems,” Paulino said.
Greene first uncovered the story of the Osborne family when doing research in preparation for a Martin Luther King Jr. Day speech a few years ago. As he combed through the archives, he uncovered lots of intriguing information, but the Osborne story stood out.
Osborne was born into slavery around 1833 and grew up on a Virginia plantation, according to the college. His father was brought to America on a slave ship. After the Civil War, Osborne took two of his daughters to Maine with the help of a Colby graduate. The college president helped him get a job with the Maine Central Railroad.
As winter set in, he returned to Virginia to bring his wife and their third daughter to Maine, as well. He also brought his father, who had been a slave for 72 years, according to the college.
Osborne’s father was Colby’s first janitor, but he soon died. Osborne took over, and for 37 years he worked at the school. He was a generous man, known for hosting students at his home for Thanksgiving. His daughter Marion became the first black woman to graduate from Colby, in 1900. Osborne retired from Colby in 1903 and died the next year at approximately 71 years old. The college’s president and board of trustees chairman served as pallbearers.
To Greene, it felt like a story that should guide the college: a family that was daring and bold and worked hard. But the story also had complexities and paradoxes.
Despite the great fondness of students for “Janitor Sam,” his life was not easy. Osborne was paid $480 per year, a small sum even then. He endured pranks and insults about his intelligence. Many of the college archival records depict him in ways or with words that today would be considered offensive and racist.
Greene wants to explore all of that. He isn’t sure Colby students always embody the boldness and resilience that the Osborne family demonstrated. He also wants to talk about the difficult questions the story raises.
“These stories that get buried because we want to put them in our past or because we’ve just kind of gone by and we’ve ignored these over time — I think it’s really dangerous and unfulfilling for these institutions to do that,” he said.
Actually, renaming the presidential house is possibly the easiest of Greene’s goals. Making the college a more diverse, inclusive place will be more difficult.
Some ways are simpler than others. This Thanksgiving break, the school offered free shuttles to the airport, bus, and train stations for any student, regardless of means. Last year, for the first time, it offered free ski passes and equipment. There is also a program that helps pay for students to study abroad or complete an internship.
Greene has also made an effort to hire diverse faculty and administrators, something students of color said helps tremendously. The dean of the college is an African-American woman, and the general counsel is an Asian-American man.
“I think it took a while for the campus to shift and for people to notice that multiculturalism was an important aspect on campus,” said Katherine Cabrera, a senior from Philadelphia who is black and involved in many clubs on campus that promote diversity.
Although many people on campus are learning the story of the Osbornes for the first time, it has always been known in one quiet corner of Colby. The school archivists, who work among shelves of crinkly yearbooks, yellowing newspaper articles, and black-and-white class photographs, have known of Janitor Sam for a long time.
This semester students are taking a class on Colby history in which they examine the materials about the Osbornes. But among the records is nothing written by Osborne himself, leaving students to interpret him through the lens of the white students and professors. The students are also trying to locate his living descendants.
In the records, people speak highly of Osborne, but in a paternalistic or racially coded way, a way that today would be considered offensive.
A newspaper clipping announcing his death said, “The sun never shone upon a skin more black or cheered a soul more white than that of ‘Sam.’ ”
Some materials are hard to interpret. For example, a photo of the class of 1882 has Osborne at the center, suggesting either that he was placed there as an honor, or that the school wanted to seem generous by doing so.
The students are learning to read the archival records with an understanding of the time in which Osborne lived. They have come to understand the complex way in which the white students regarded Osborne — beloved but not an equal.
Namita Bhattacharya, a junior from Swampscott, said it’s hard not to get angry when reading the pejorative way he is sometimes described. But she sees an opportunity.
“Look at it for what it is and then kind of . . . see how far we’ve come and how much we have yet to learn,” she said.