- EBONY AND IVY: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities by Craig Steven Wilder
In Ebony and Ivy, Craig Steven Wilder convincingly details the interconnections between the eighteenth and early-nineteenth century European and North American colonial institutions of higher education, the rise of the merchant class, and the enslavement of people. This study is an important addition to the literature in that it details how racist policies and enslavement were inextricably tied to northern educational (and often religious) institutions.
The story Wilder tells will seem familiar to those connected to higher education. In order to be viable, colonial schools needed students and donors. Higher education institutions met these needs by writing missions that included evangelizing the Native Americans. With the evangelical agenda foregrounded, they received a significant proportion of their funds from Europeans who were inspired to Christianize (and “civilize”) the natives. The schools happily took their funds but failed to produce many Native American graduates. Simultaneously, many European colonists attended and graduated from these colleges and universities. [End Page 141]
As the nation moved away from “civilizing” the indigenous peoples and towards relocation and extermination, schools continued to fundraise in Europe but they were not as successful. They soon looked to colonists who belonged to the rising merchant class. Not surprisingly, those who were the most flush with wealth were those who were most heavily involved in the enslavement of people along the trans-Atlantic trade routes. From Europe, the Caribbean, and the colonies, young men from wealthy merchant and enslaving families needed education in order to contribute to their families’ lucrative businesses. Their families were not only the major donors to colonial colleges and universities but they also were employers for their graduating students. Many northern alumni headed south by horse or boat to serve as tutors for the children of wealthy plantation owners. As time passed, frequently these alumni became enmeshed in the practice of human enslavement as enslavers. This was the alumni association of every college and university in the colonies—both north and south.
In an almost genealogical manner, Wilder traces the lineage of each colonial college and university to enslavement and racial privilege. He clearly delineates which college and university presidents enslaved people (almost all), which mercantile families involved in enslavement gave significant money, and which students traveled from the South to the northern colleges and universities to enroll and graduate. He even details which marital relationships solidified the financial and ideological positions he highlights. Wilder also tracks the intellectual and economic interchange between U.S. colleges and universities and their English and Scottish counterparts. He clearly demonstrates how connected these institutions were and how the exchange of ideas impacted economic investment in racist systems.
Subsequently, in the New Nation, with the rise of the study of science and the professionalization of medicine (through medical schools), Wilder demonstrates the impact of these racist lineages on the willingness of schools to embrace the research on biological race. He also shows their interest in disseminating these separatist ideologies throughout the political landscape. Wilder provides convincing evidence that the enmeshment of the university limited the academic freedom of those who advocated for abolition and access to opportunity for African Americans and Native Americans throughout the land.
The story that Wilder tells is compelling. The research is thorough and interesting. The prose is clear as he traces the racist and racial roots of U.S. higher education and the ramifications of those ideological and economic histories.