Unidentified Custodians (so-called “Sweeps”), ca. 1875. Photograph. Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library
The College Sweeps tended to the care and cleaning of the campus buildings. Duties included daily dusting and sweeping, cleaning out chimneys, and a thorough cleaning of student rooms during the College recess. One of the oldest recorded mentions of a College Sweep was in a memorial poem anonymously published in the October 22, 1750 edition of the New York Evening Post. The subject of the poem was Thomas Turney, the long-serving Yale College Sweep, who had passed away in the winter of that year. Originally from Stamford, Turney was well known amongst generations of Yale Students, as he had been in New Haven since around the time Yale moved to the Elm City in 1717.
By the 1860s, informational publications about the College, such as the Yale Potpourri and Yale Banner, began to list the names of the employees that tended to the official custodial needs of the campus buildings. Each campus building had an assigned sweep to see to its cleaning. The labor force was comprised of many African-Americans. While the work was physically demanding, and certainly considered a service job, the regular employment and steady income would have made the job “decent” to African-Americans who faced widespread discrimination and unemployment in New Haven. Moreover, the prestige of Yale, and the daily, intimate contact with the elite students and personnel, bestowed notoriety and prominence on the small contingent of Sweeps.
Outside of Yale, many of the African-American Sweeps were distinguished in the community. The men who worked as sweeps owned property and were active in the social and civic life of African-American New Haven. William Bouchet came to New Haven from Charleston, South Carolina as the enslaved valet of Yale student, John B. Robertson. After receiving his emancipation, Bouchet and his wife worked to support the abolition of slavery, through their participation and membership at New Haven’ s oldest African-American institution, the Temple Street Congregational Church. Bouchet served as a Trustee of the church, overseeing church business matters. Perhaps William Bouchet’s greatest role was as a father to Dr. Edward Alexander Bouchet, Yale College’s first African-American graduate. Luke Lathrop, a sweep from the 1860’s, was a pillar of the Temple Street Congregational Church, where he was the leading Deacon. Prominent in the wider New Haven Congregational Association, Luke Lathrop represented New Haven as a delegate to the National Colored Conventions, which brought together African-Americans from around the country to organize and discuss critical issues impacting the race. Lathrop also served as a Justice of the Peace in New Haven. Carter Wright, a sweep from the 1870s, was the son of a teacher and minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. George T. Livingston was active in Republican politics and served as a Deacon at Temple Street Congregational and on the Vestry of St. Lukes Episcopal Church. Richard Muse, a graduate of the Hampton Institute, was amongst the first group of Hampton Singers, famous for touring the United States singing Negro Spirituals.
It is not known whether or not any of the African-American Sweeps had ever been enslaved. It is a fact that several of the sweeps had connections to the Civil War. George T. Livingston served with the US Colored Troops in company A of the Connecticut Colored 29th Infantry. Serving along with him was Sargent Daniel Stanley Lathrop, the son of sweep Luke Lathrop. Carter Wright’s father had come from Louisiana years before the War, and served as the Chaplain of company K of the 29th Infantry .
Through the years, students have collected photographs, written recollections, poems, and songs to the memory of the college sweeps. They were an integral part of campus life, who became a part of the legends, lore and traditions of the college.
— Charles E. Warner, Jr.
Yale Courant 1868
Yale Banner 1865, 1869,1870, 1876
Yale Potpourri 1865, 1868, 1870, 1874
Songs of Yale Published in 1853 by N.W.T Root and Lombard, Song of the Sweep- song by N.W.T Root class of 1852
Yale Yesterday by Clarence Deming, 1915
Records of the Dixwell Congregational Church
US Federal Census Records
Records of the Connecticut 29th Colored Infantry Unit, Connecticut State Library Data
The New Haven Morning Journal and Courier