The Morgan School’s Namesake’s Past Raises Questions in Clinton
To show appreciation for donating funds for its new high school, in 1875 the Town of Clinton dedicated this statue of Charles Morgan, which still stands near the site of the original Morgan School, the now-closed Pierson School. (File photo by Kelley Fryer/Harbor News | Buy This Photo)
His name adorns the high school in town and a statue of him has been overlooking the Pierson School lawn for nearly 150 years, but how much do you really know about Charles Morgan? As the nation reckons with monuments to people with problematic pasts, Clinton may soon need to have its own conversation on the subject.
Unlike most towns that simply name their public high schools after the town, Clinton students attend The Morgan School, named after Charles Morgan. Morgan was born in 1795 and was a resident of Clinton up until age 14, when he left Clinton for New York City. Morgan made a sizable fortune in various business ventures and toward the end of his life he decided to donate money as a gift to his birthplace.
In 1869, Morgan purchased the land on Main Street upon which the original Morgan School would be built. The school opened in 1872 after Morgan paid for the school construction and left money in an endowment to keep the school running. As a show of support, in 1875 the town dedicated a statue of Morgan, which still stands near the site of the original Morgan School.
In recent weeks, across America municipalities have been forced to debate the merits of statues and building names that honor people who held beliefs that would now be considered racist. Statues of members of the Confederacy have been removed; the Washington Redskins football franchise has committed to changing its name after people argued the name is a harmful slur and the mascot a stereotype; and statues of Christopher Columbus have been removed in various locales because of his treatment of native populations during his voyages across the Atlantic Ocean.
Communities close to Clinton have also had similar conversations and made similar decisions. In Guilford, the school system voted to retire the nickname “Indians” from its high school teams and a statue of Columbus was removed in downtown New Haven. These acts have contributed to some people in Clinton now taking a harder look at some of the elements of Morgan’s past.
A Complicated Past
While Morgan’s gift of the school to Clinton is an obvious good deed, Morgan was by no means a saint. During his lifetime it can be verified that Morgan enslaved more than three dozen people. A book titled Charles Morgan and the Development of Southern Transportation by James P. Baughman was among the documents shown to the Harbor News by the Clinton Historical Society. In the book, Baughman documented Morgan’s actions and attitude during the time of the Civil War. In one chapter, Baughman wrote, “More difficult to understand, however, for a permanent member of New York City who spent only ‘a portion of the season’ in the South, Morgan was a more–than-casual slave holder.”
The book goes on to state that between 1846 and 1861, Morgan owned at least 31 individuals held in slavery. Sales records from the Notarial Achieves of Orleans Parish, Louisiana outlined in the book show that Morgan bought enslaved individuals as young as two years old and as old as old 50, with the last listed purchase date of April 25, 1860. Most of the enslaved people were said to be used on steamships owned by Morgan.
Morgan’s business interests deserve scrutiny beyond his slave holdings. Records show that Morgan profited by playing both sides during the Civil War.
In the North, Morgan made the bulk of his money during the war through his company Morgan Iron Works. The company produced engines and ships that were used in the Union Navy.
For the Confederacy, Morgan owned a ship called Frances, which made several successful trips as a blockade runner to ports in the Gulf of Mexico. Blockade runners were ships that were smaller and faster than the larger Union Navy ships. The blockade runners would attempt to sneak past the Union Navy ships and deliver arms, ammunition, and other goods to the southern ports.
An additional example of Morgan benefiting from playing both sides of the Civil War occurred in 1861. One of Morgan’s steamships was chartered at a cost of $14,750 for the transport of Confederate troops sent to capture federal camps and supplies in Texas. Morgan then benefited by having the same ship chartered by the fleeing union troops at a cost of $12,500 for their evacuation to safety.
It’s possible to view Morgan as a man of his times, who simply took advantage of practices that were available and legal at the time. However, Morgan can also be viewed as someone who was willing to aid those fighting against the United States and participate in morally reprehensible activities all in the pursuit of making a profit.
The renaming or removal of statues has been a thorny debate.
Opponents of renaming buildings or removing monuments argue that doing so erases local history and disregards the positive aspects of the life of someone who benefited the community or country. They also argue that by applying the standards of what is socially acceptable now to what was done in the past, it’s likely people will find problematic actions in everyone’s history—where does it end? Another common complaint is that the move is purely symbolic and does nothing to challenge the problem of discrimination in day-to-day life.
Proponents of change argue that honoring people with racist or otherwise harmful pasts is offensive to those who suffered under the racist institutions and policies held up and sometimes carried out by those people. When taking down the statue of Columbus in Wooster Square in New Haven, a group advocating for the statue’s removal said it “is a representation of injustice and a reminder of the mistreatment of immigrants and people of color going back to the founding of our nation.”
Other common observations include the inherent conflict of honoring confederate leaders or sympathizers who fought against the county, sending a message that treason can be tolerated.
Locally, people are asking themselves how a Black student in Clinton should feel about walking the halls of a building named after a man who thought of people like him or her as property to be bought and sold.
In various social media posts in a Facebook group for Clinton supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement, people expressed displeasure about Morgan’s past and offered a range of opinions on what to do about the name Morgan going forward.
Ella Franzoni, a former student of The Morgan School, wrote, “I looked up Charles Morgan because I realized I knew very little about him, and I was very upset with what I learned.”
“My personal opinion is that the school should be renamed. If this is not possible, the town and school should, at the very least, give students an accurate education on who this man was. I remember learning very little, if anything, about who he was. We certainly never learned about his connections to the Confederacy during the Civil War. I also believe that the statue should be removed, because this man should not continue to be glorified in our town,” Franzoni told the Harbor News.
“I believe that most people in Clinton don’t know too much about Charles Morgan, and that if they did, they would agree that the school should be renamed,” she added. “My opinion is that this man does not and should not represent the values of our town. The Morgan School mission statement states that it ‘cultivates intellect and character’ in its students. Charles Morgan is not someone who I feel represents good character, and so the message sent is one of hypocrisy.”
Another commenter suggested the name remain, but said the school could offer a course at the school that examines Morgan’s personal history. Other commenters suggested surveying the community to see what the rest of the town thought.
Jane Scully Welch is the president of the Morgan School Alumni Association, and said it’s her preference that The Morgan School name and statue don’t change. Scully Welch said that to her, when she thinks of the name “Morgan,” she thinks of the generations of students, faculty, and alumni that have given the school its character as opposed to Charles Morgan and anything he might have done. Scully Welch also said she understands that others may be in favor of renaming the school.
“Where I may understand how some feel about Charles Morgan, I don’t agree. What he did, by owning slaves, was maybe reprehensible to us. But it was legal. He came back Clinton after the war and gave this town monies to build a school,” said Scully Welch.
Scully Welch said that the school song “Towering High,” which was written by a teacher in the 1970s, sums up her feelings toward the school.
In part, the song says, “May we with pride in our hearts for Morgan with strength from her days gone by learn always to live our lives the Morgan way.”
“I think it sums up how we all feel about our Morgan. We don’t revere Charles Morgan, we just love what is the Morgan Way, what we students and faculty made it,” said Scully Welch.
A message seeking comment on Charles Morgan’s legacy from a trustee of the Morgan School Fund was not returned at press time.
Thus far, there haven’t been any formal calls to rename The Morgan School. Board of Education Chair Erica Gelven confirmed that she has not been contacted by anyone regarding the name.