- Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities by Craig Steven Wilder
Craig Wilder’s Ebony and Ivy offers a comprehensive synthesis and interpretation of the ways in which race-based thought and slavery are implicated in the founding, development, and intellectual norms of America’s universities. This is a national history, convincingly demonstrating how university faculty and administrators used slavery to their advantage and both reified and institutionalized scientific racism into its curriculum. The book is a profoundly sad and troubling assessment of the political, economic, religious and intellectual underpinnings of a nation based on principles of white supremacy and the central role of American universities in support of such ideas. It is a tour de force of scholarship and analysis, and should be widely used by students of American history and culture.
Many universities have begun to explore the role of slavery in their founding and evolution. Brown University president Ruth Simmons supported the most comprehensive institutional self-study of institutional ties to the slave trade. Others— at Emory, William & Mary, Williams, Harvard, Yale, Duke, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland, Virginia, and elsewhere—have established courses, commissions, tours, brochures, plaques, and websites to demonstrate their deepening interest in uncovering their institution’s previously hidden and sullied history on race matters. Some focus on the role of slaves in building and sustaining their institutions. Others explore how founders, trustees, and presidents owned, traded or otherwise profited from human beings of color. Yet others expose the dependence of students on enslaved labor to maintain their privileged status. Collectively, this work supports Wilder’s research. But it is in the aggregate that the full impact can be felt. While Wilder draws upon this body of work at individual institutions, his capacity to synthesize it into a larger narrative is what gives this book its power.
Ebony and Ivy is divided into two parts. The first four chapters, grouped under the section called “Slavery and the Rise of the American College,” center on how the slave economies of the colonial world became intertwined with the founding and development of American academies of learning. The second part, “Race and the Rise of the American College,” traces the production of knowledge itself, revealing how ideas of biological supremacy of whites became the basis for an insidious race “science” that ultimately supported hierarchies of color and could even be used to justify recolonization to Africa in an effort to create a world without color. Both sections of the book intertwine policies toward Native Americans and African Americans, demonstrating that race thinking applied to both indigenous populations and to those brought to America against their will. The larger conceptual frame of the book, Wilder argues, is 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).
Wilder begins his history with an investigation of the first five colleges of the British American colonies, established between 1636 and 1746. All benefited enormously from the African slave trade. The colleges were imperial mechanisms to expand European control and to enrich white planters and traders. The original [End Page 585] students at Harvard for example, were young men who sought to build their futures in the British Caribbean as planters and traders. At William and Mary, the original trustees came right out of slaveholding families and arranged for colleges to be funded from the profits of slave labor. To enrich European investors and extend the colonial reach with a minimum of conflict, religious orthodoxy had to be maintained among the colonists. In addition, early colleges like Harvard, Dartmouth, and William & Mary sought to contain the power of Indian confederacies by evangelizing and converting the “infidels.” Some even established Indian colleges, although they were short-lived. The goal from the beginning was to Christianize the indigenous populations. Wilder concludes that early American colleges set the terms for the ruin of Indian civilization while building their foundations through profits derived...