Slavery, Rhode Island, Universities, Race, Racial hierarchies, Thomas Wilson Dorr, Dorrites, Suffrage
In October 2006, Brown University released a long-awaited report on its links to slavery in the eighteenth century. Slavery and Justice concluded that more than two dozen of the university’s Board of Directors had either owned or captained slave ships, while many members of the Brown family were themselves slave owners. The year before, Hurricane Katrina had flooded 80 percent of New Orleans, taking a particular toll on the African American community. A rare moment had opened in the American dialogue about race where a brutally honest look at a sordid past converged with a dumbfounded gaze upon an ugly present. Despite the ways in which race matters continued to shock us, the hope was that something positive, productive, and restorative would come of the moment.
Openings like these must be seized upon to further the investigation of how racial hierarchies and class distinctions in the United States form and are maintained. For separate reasons, Craig Steven Wilder’s Ebony and Ivy and Eric Chaput’s The People’s Martyr belong in that probe. Wilder’s work expands exponentially on the 2006 Brown study to make the case that virtually all of America’s elite colleges and universities had origins inextricably—and intentionally—linked to slavery. American colleges were built on top of and grew right along with the slave economy, tying America’s elite (both North and South) to the bondage of millions of African Americans. Chaput’s account of Rhode Island scion Thomas Wilson Dorr and his failed rebellion in 1842 underscores just how race and class cut across partisan institutions in the run-up to the Civil War. While the former volume is expansive and sweeping in its scope, the latter bores down into the political minutiae of the smallest state in the union. Taken together, they offer a searing historical exposition of the ways in which racial and class hierarchies, propelled and propagated by slavery, traced through some of the most powerful American institutions in the early republican era.
The primary mission of any institution of higher education is to produce, accumulate, and transmit knowledge. That knowledge, directly or indirectly, intentionally or not, is tied to interests, which are again linked [End Page 513] to power—cultural, social, economic, and political. Today’s American universities and the people who run them are connected to some of the nation’s most powerful corporate and governmental institutions, along with the people who run them. No wonder someone like Robert Gates can go from Director of the CIA to President of Texas A&M to Secretary of Defense to Chancellor of William and Mary College.
None of this should surprise us, for C. Wright Mills posited as much in his seminal work The Power Elite (New York, 1956): Economic, political, and cultural domination tended to concentrate in the hands of a few, forming an insular world of wealth, power, and knowledge that fenced out ordinary citizens. On one level, then, a book exploring the history of the intimate connection between elite institutions of higher education and those with their hands on the levers of the slave economy is no surprise. On the other hand, Wilder’s meticulous rendering of the subject, even if it is not completely new to historical scholars, is simply jarring. Ebony and Ivy succeeds in casting a painstakingly fresh look upon the intricate web connecting higher education to slavery. It does so with a matter-of-factness and aplomb that belies its explosive conclusions and their implications.
Wilder asserts that slavery pervaded higher education in colonial America. “As slave traders and planters came to power in colonial society, they took guardianship over education” (75). American colleges became extensions of merchant wealth, and “college officers sought slave traders...