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NEW HAVEN, Conn. (WTNH) — A Yale University business student is proposing renaming Whitney Avenue in New Haven, Connecticut.

The student, Robert Lucas, said the legacy of Eli Whitney should be studied, not celebrated. 

“Eli Whitney’s principal legacy was the invention of the cotton gin, and that led to the expansion of slavery,” Lucas said.

“The basic idea was creating a machine – or create and patent a machine – that could cut that work down,” said Jason Bischoff-Wurstle, the director of photo archives at the New Haven Museum. “That idea being the work would be faster and require less people. It did go on in American history and create a massive growth of slavery rather than diminish it.”

The original cotton gin of Eli Whitney, on display in the Smithsonian. (Getty Images)

Bischoff-Wurstle said that’s because it fueled the ability to produce more cotton. He said that Whitney showed it off to the press before he had a patent for it.

“The word got out and people began building their own,” Bischoff-Wurstle said. “Anything connected to the cotton gin connected to him was generally a lawsuit, and he didn’t really profit of it at all, and eventually he did have a patent, but it was after the fact it had proliferated.”  

During his time at Yale, Lucas has spent his time in New Haven getting to know the history of the area. He thinks Whitney Avenue should be renamed, and is also urging Yale to rethink how it uses Eli Whitney’s name, including its Eli Whitney Students Program, which serves nontraditional students attending Yale.

“The name doesn’t represent what we want from the area and from the university,” Lucas said. “Things won’t change unless someone speaks up.”

Instead of Whitney Avenue, Lucas is suggesting the street be named after Edward Bouchet, the first African American student to graduate with a doctorate from Yale.   

To get the word out, Lucas penned a guest editorial in the Yale Daily News and brought the idea up to the New Haven Board of Alders. It’s been referred to the New Haven City Services and Environmental Policy Committee.

“I think the most important thing is to welcome the conversation and talk about this,” New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker said. “It’s always nice when someone takes the initiative to help us have that conversation.” 

Some people have voiced their support for the idea, while others have said it should be left as it. Ultimately, the city said it’s up to the board of alders. 

As for the university, a spokesperson said Yale follows the principles outlined by the Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming.