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How Slavery Shaped America's Oldest And Most Elite Colleges

Sep 17, 2013
Originally published on September 17, 2013 8:45 pm

A few years ago, Brown University commissioned a study of its own historical connection to the Atlantic slave trade. The report found that the Brown family — the wealthy Rhode Island merchants for whom the university was named — were "not major slave traders, but they were not strangers to the business either."

So you might think that Brown — or the College of Rhode Island, as it was known in the early days — would figure prominently into Craig Steven Wilder's new book Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America's Universities. And while Brown does make an appearance, so does Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Yale, Dartmouth, Pennsylvania, and William and Mary.

Wilder, who chairs the history department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wasn't lacking for material.

"The academy never stood apart from American slavery," Wilder writes in the book. "In fact, it stood beside church and state as the third pillar of a civilization built on bondage."

But those early colleges also made a point to reach out to wealthy families in the Caribbean, where there were few colleges and universities.

"John Witherspoon, the president of Princeton just before the Revolution, sent a missive to the West Indians promising that their sons were safer in New Jersey than they could ever be in England, where notorious and mean-spirited men preyed upon wealthy boys in the West Indies. But in New Jersey they would be protected and cared for, catered to and turned into responsible citizens." Wilder tells Robert Siegel, host of All Things Considered.

To demonstrate just how ingrained slavery was to the 18th century academy, Wilder pointed to a flier that was published by the New-York Post Boy and Weekly Gazette that announced the swearing-in ceremony for the trustees of King's College, which would later become Columbia University.

The advertisement on the flier read:

"Two likely Negro Boys, and a girl, to be Sold. Inquire of William Griffith, opposite Beekman slip."

Wilder argues that the academy was also central to the development of scientific racism — pseudoscience meant to establish the provable inferiority of certain racial groups — that would serve as a pretext for enslavement.

American farmers would leave to study in Europe, and they would be seen as experts on Native Americans and Africans because of their closer contact with them. Those people gave lectures and dissertations on the bodily and mental inferiority of these various groups.

"Thomas Jefferson in his lifetime grows up on his father's plantation, which sits right on the boundary of Indian Country," Wilder writes. "And so Native people are actually passing through that region all the time," Wilder said of Jefferson, who studied at William and Mary and later founded the University of Virginia. "He grows up on slave plantations and so Jefferson emerges in his adulthood as someone who is actually constantly writing about and thinking about the physical and mental characteristics of Native Americans and Africans, and he exports a lot of that knowledge to Europe and he shares it with intellectual friends around the world."

But the relationship those institutions had to slavery was not neatly pro- or anti-slavery. At one early Yale event, honorary degrees were bestowed to both a slave owner and to an abolitionist.

"There were real struggles about this," Wilder tells Siegel. "There were lots of people on campus who argued vehemently against the expansion of the slave trade and the expansion of slavery." But they lost that battle in part because of the emerging intellectual defense of slavery that was rooted in racial science.

"The perverse irony of that is that they're defeated by a body of ideas that are emerging on campus itself," Wilder says.

A group of slave traders at what is now Columbia University created a medal to be awarded to the author of the best essay arguing against slavery.

The official histories of Northern universities have long failed to describe the role of slaves. Early on, these histories included descriptions of the black slaves on campus as caricatures. "By dehumanizing them, you can actually make their presence unremarkable," Wilder said. "Through a kind of comedy and lampooning, they were barbaric figures that no one needed to take seriously."

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Robert Siegel. A few years ago, Brown University commissioned a study of its own historical connection to the Atlantic slave trade. The Brown family - the Rhode Island merchants whose contributions are memorialized by the university's name - were, as the report found, not major slave traders. But they were not strangers to the business, either. That report followed demands at Brown for reparations or for renaming.

So when I started reading "Ebony and Ivy," historian Craig Steven Wilder's new book, which is subtitled "Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America's Universities," I assumed that I would be reading plenty about Brown - or the College of Rhode Island, as it was known in the early days. Well, Brown does figure somewhat in "Ebony and Ivy." So do Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Yale, Dartmouth, the University of Pennsylvania, William and Mary. You get the picture.

Professor Wilder, who is chairman of the History Department at MIT, is not lacking for material. He joins us now from Boston. Welcome to the program.


SIEGEL: The first fact we should recognize here is that while mid-19th century slavery, the system the Civil War ended, was a Southern institution, 17th, 18th slavery in the colonies was also Northern. How common was slavery in, say, New England or the mid-Atlantic colonies?

WILDER: Slaveholding is relatively common. And the New Englanders, the mid-Atlantic residents were actually heavily involved in both the slave trade and also, provisioning the slave colonies to the South, both in what's now the Southern part of the United States and also in the West Indies.

SIEGEL: As a source of wealth in, say, New England or in New York, slave trading?

WILDER: Yeah, the provisioning trade actually is the real beginning of this connection. It's actually taking New England and mid-Atlantic ships, and bringing the things that the West Indians needed to run their plantations and to maintain their colonies. That trade then expands into their participation in the African slave trade and also, provisioning people.

SIEGEL: You write of American colleges - and I'm quoting now - "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." How so?

WILDER: I think the long story of the book - for me, actually, as a historian - was my own struggle, actually, to wrestle with the role of college in this early period. The evidence increasingly forced me to realize that the emergence of African slavery in the Americas required, in fact, the participation of colleges. It required the participation of the primary social institutions of American society. And that was actually a kind of, you know, real struggle for me, as a historian. It's not easy to see the institutions that I see as particularly benevolent as actually having this very sort of troubling role.

SIEGEL: You write about American colleges going to where the rich were, trying to both raise money and also, find wealthy students who might be sent there. And that means the West Indies, at one point, in the 18th century. It's already, in effect, they were living off of foreign students that could pay high tuitions.

WILDER: Yeah, absolutely, the colonial colleges struggled for students and money. And that often brought them to the West Indies because the West Indies had Barbados, for instance, could boast the wealthiest men in the Americas - in the British Americas. They had money. They had sons who needed an education. And the North American mainland colleges were particularly good at advertising themselves to the West Indies - so good, actually, that if we think about the history of this, the West Indies actually only established a single college on their own.

SIEGEL: There is one moment that you cite: A broadside - a flier, I guess we would say, was published announcing the swearing-in ceremony of the trustees of King's College, which became Columbia University. And the advertisement on that flier - the one advertisement is, "Two Likely Negro Boys and a Girl to be Sold, Inquire of William Griffith, Opposite Beekman Slip." That was the advertisement that paid for the flier announcing the beginning of the college.

WILDER: And this extraordinary, intimate relationship between the founding of these colleges, and both the presence of enslaved people and the centrality of the emerging slave economy, repeats - over and over again.

SIEGEL: You also write about ideas that thrive in late 18th century and early 19th century American universities. And you would argue a connection between slavery, racism and the American academy.

WILDER: By the middle of the 18th century, the emergence of scientific racism on both sides of the Atlantic - and what I mean by that is a new science that sought to establish the provable inferiority of specific populations of people - and academies are critical to it. They actually participate in it fully, and in a number of different ways. You know, I have a chapter on students from the American colonies heading to Europe. And what happens to them when they get to Europe?

You know, when you leave Virginia as the son of a planter - or when you leave Barbados as the son of a planter - and you head to Scotland or England to study, you emerge on the other side of the Atlantic as an expert on Native Americans and Africans. And often, these young men were actually giving lectures, and writing dissertations, on the bodily and mental inferiority of these various populations of people.

SIEGEL: At some point, the attitudes you describe toward race and slavery are quite confusing. I think it's a Yale event you describe, when honorary degrees are given - one to an abolitionist, and the other to a slaveholder.

WILDER: (Laughter)

SIEGEL: It's on the same day, on the same platform.

WILDER: There were real struggles about this. There were lots of people on campus in the late 18th century who argued vehemently against the expansion of the slave trade, and the expansion of slavery. They get defeated. And one of the things that defeats them is the emerging intellectual defense of slavery that was rooted in racial science. The perverse irony of that is they're defeated by, actually, a body of ideas that are emerging on campus itself.

And so you often have, especially in the late 18th century, this odd juxtaposition of people who oppose slavery and slaveholders, sitting simultaneously at these college graduations. You know, it's a body of slaveholders at what's now Columbia University, institute a medal for the best essay each year opposing a slave trade.

SIEGEL: I'm trying to think which is more remarkable - the extensive relations between the colleges of New England and the mid-Atlantic states and slave money; or the remarkable job of clearing up the record that those institutions have done over the years, to make one think that these were all the bastions of abolition, and support for the Union, and opposition to slavery.

WILDER: Yeah, it's a difficult story. And I think one of the things I found really quite interesting, in doing this work, was when I looked at published histories of these colleges, it's not actually that they never mention slavery. From time to time, they do. And they're more honest - actually, to be perfectly honest, the Southern universities have to mention it because it's so, you know, central to the region, the economy, etc.

The Northern colleges, the old ones, actually tend to skirt around it. But enslaved people show up. But they tend to show up through a kind of caricature that makes it palatable. By dehumanizing them, they were sort of barbaric figures who no one needed to take all that seriously and certainly, whose lives didn't matter in the history of the institutions themselves.

SIEGEL: Professor Craig Steven Wilder, thank you very much for talking with us today.

WILDER: Thank you, it's been a pleasure.

SIEGEL: Craig Steven Wilder's book is called "Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America's Universities."


CORNISH: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.