Bust of Stockton gone, university asks panel to decide how best to enshrine its slaveholder namesake

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Harvey Kesselman, president of Stockton University, at a 2015 legislative hearing in Trenton, N.J. Kesselman said Monday a special committee would decide the future of a bust of the school’s namesake, Richard Stockton, and his place in campus history.

GALLOWAY, N.J.  — A new Stockton University volunteer committee will meet for the first time on Wednesday to begin the development of an exhibit, and eventually a curriculum, to “thoughtfully and objectively” explore the life and legacy of the school’s namesake, the university announced Monday.

The formation of the committee under the direction of Stockton president Harvey Kesselman follows the removal last week from the school’s main entrance of a bust of Richard Stockton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence who also was a documented slaveholder.

The removal came amid protests nationwide over the statues of controversial historical figures, including the deadly rally in Charlottesville, Va., where white nationalists marching to save a monument to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee clashed with counter-protesters. The confrontation left a young woman and two state troopers dead.

But when the bust of Stockton was taken down last week — temporarily, according to the university — Kesselman said the debate whether to remove it had been going on for several years.

In the statement released Monday, he said that the removal was relevant to what was happening with historical monuments across the United States and that “it has created the opportunity to engage in a discussion of the man, his role in American history, and how we might better remember him today.”

The first task of the committee will be to recommend an “appropriate, safe and secure” public space where a temporary exhibit will  be erected explaining how and why the university is undertaking a research initiative into Richard Stockton’s life and legacy. A permanent exhibit, complemented by educational activities such as panel discussions, lectures, and a course about Stockton, will eventually follow, Kesselman said.

The committee will be comprised of administrators, faculty, instructors, and students.

The university opened in 1971 and was named for Richard Stockton, a New Jersey delegate to the Second Continental Congress who also served as a trustee of what is now Princeton University.  In November 1776, while on a mission for the Second Continental Congress, he was captured by the British and held for more than a year on a prison ship in New York.  He was said never to have fully recovered from the cruel conditions in captivity, and he died of cancer in 1781.

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