- Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities by Craig Steven Wilder
During recent slavery reparations debates in New England, several Ivy League schools began to investigate their ties to slavery. Craig Wilder’s Ebony and Ivy highlights the connections between America’s first colleges, race-based slavery, and the Atlantic economy—particularly the transatlantic slave trade and the commodities that enslaved Africans produced and consumed. Wilder demonstrates that “the academy never stood apart from American slavery—in fact, it stood beside church and state as the third pillar of a civilization built on bondage” (11). Through specific examples, Wilder shows that the establishment, development, and dominance of Ivy League colleges were an extension of the larger colonial project. While much of the book focuses on the eight traditional Ivy Leagues schools—Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Brown, Dartmouth, the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia, and Cornell—Wilder includes other schools established and endowed by people invested in human bondage, such as Rutgers, William and Mary, and the University of Virginia.
The book is organized both topically and chronologically, moving from the colonial period through the American Civil War. Wilder draws the reader into each chapter with a story of how an individual colonial official, founding father, or leading businessman was tied to both the academy and the business of slavery. In part 1, Wilder addresses how and why the first colleges were rooted in the Atlantic slave economy. In part 2, he investigates the influences of the institution of slavery on the production of knowledge and intellectual culture in the United States. The book’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness in that Wilder offers a sometimes prodigious wealth of evidence. His exhaustive lists of names, family lineages, businesses, and nations can be overwhelming, but they convey the multilayered, inextricable links between higher education and the various businesses of slavery. Wilder’s deluge of examples also speaks to the larger erasure of the history of slavery in the North.
Ebony and Ivy chronicles the relationship between colonial colleges and colonial slavery, the codependent maturation of higher education and the institution of slavery in the United States, and finally the legacies of race-based slavery in American intellectual culture. In the colonial period, colleges were instruments of Christian expansion, one part of the English strategy to maintain social authority over colonists and assert cultural superiority over indigenous peoples. Wilder asserts that the “African slave trade underwrote this invasion of ideas” (18). As the colonies [End Page 182] matured, merchants joined slaveholders in endowing and donating to North America’s first institutions of higher education. Through a brief history of the rise of the merchant class in the Northeast, most of whom were engaged in the Atlantic economy, Wilder shows that university trustees always included prominent slaveholders and slave traders and enrolled large numbers of merchants’ sons. Public universities also benefited from duties collected on enslaved Africans.
Wilder devotes a chapter to slave labor on the college campuses, driving home its ubiquity. Enslaved people made and maintained fires, hauled water, prepared food, cleaned, mended clothes, built and repaired buildings, maintained the grounds, and ran errands; on more remote campuses they cultivated land, kept animals, and manufactured goods. Wilder also uses this portion of the book to argue against the persistent myth of mild northern slavery: describing an array of punishments from whippings to maiming, Wilder proves that “neither church nor academy moderated the horrors of slavery” (130).
Wilder also highlights the ways that American colleges produced racial theories that justified white domination of native lands and exploitation of African labor, asserting that “race did not come from science and theology; it came to science and theology” (182). Wilder connects the rise of scientific racism to the expansion of slavery in the United States, tracing a shift in scientific thinking from monogenesis to polygenesis human origins theory, a shift he argues was a result of the subtle influence of slaveholders and slave traders...