Ebony and Ivy: The Secret History of How Slavery Helped Build America's Elite Colleges

Sunday, 01 December 2013 11:34 By Amy Goodman, Democracy Now! | Video Interview
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We spend the hour with the author of a new book, 10 years in the making, that examines how many major U.S. universities — Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown, Dartmouth, Rutgers, Williams and the University of North Carolina, among others — are drenched in the sweat, and sometimes the blood, of Africans brought to the United States as slaves. In Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, Massachusetts Institute of Technology American history professor Craig Steven Wilder reveals how the slave economy and higher education grew up together. "When you think about the colonial world, until the American Revolution, there is only one college in the South, William & Mary ... The other eight colleges were all Northern schools, and they’re actually located in key sites, for the most part, of the merchant economy where the slave traders had come to power and rose as the financial and intellectual backers of new culture of the colonies," Wilder says.


AMY GOODMAN: We turn to a new book 10 years in the making that looks at how some of the country’s major universities—Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown, Rutgers, Williams, the University of North Carolina, to name just a few—are drenched in sweat, and sometimes the blood, of Africans brought here as slaves. The book is called Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities. In it, MIT history professor Craig Steven Wilder reveals how the slave economy and higher education grew up together. He writes, "the American campus stood as a silent monument to slavery." Well, this history is silent no more. Professor Craig Steven Wilder joins us here in New York.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about America’s most elite universities. What relation do they have to slavery?

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: I think there are multiple relationships. The first and probably most poignant, most provocative, is the relationship to the slave trade itself. In the middle of the 18th century, from 1746 to 1769—fewer than 25 years, less than a quarter century—the number of colleges in the British colonies triples from three to nine. The original three were Harvard, Yale and William & Mary, and all of a sudden there were nine by 1769. And it triples in that 25-year period. That 25-year period actually coincides with the height of the slave trade. It’s precisely the rise and the elaboration of the Atlantic economy, based on the African slave trade, that allows for this sort of fantastic articulation of new growth of the institutional infrastructure of the colonies.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk specifically about particular universities.


AMY GOODMAN: I mean, you are—you do look at some universities in the South—


AMY GOODMAN: —but also in the Deep North.



CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: It’s a very Northern story, actually. You know, when you think about the colonial world, until the American Revolution, there’s actually only one college in the South: William & Mary. There are a couple of other attempts, but they fail. The other eight colleges are all Northern schools. And they’re actually located in key sites, for the most part, of the merchant economy and where the slave traders had sort of come to power and rose as the sort of financial and intellectual backers of the new culture of the colonies.

AMY GOODMAN: So talk about Harvard.

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Sure. Harvard, actually, from its very beginnings in 1636, the college, by 1638, actually has an enslaved man living on campus, who’s referred to as "the Moor." And—


CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: The Moor. And that actually is directly related to two slave trades. I imagine it’s how he gets to Cambridge. One is right after the Pequot War, the war in which the Puritans defeat the Indians of southern Connecticut. There’s a Pequot slave trade into the West Indies. The captive Pequot are actually sold into the West Indies. That ship actually returns with enslaved Africans. And it’s right after that moment that the Moor appears on campus and becomes part of the sort of legend of early Harvard.

AMY GOODMAN: Toward the end of the book, you include a photograph that shows five men who served as president—


AMY GOODMAN: —of Harvard University from 1829 to 1862. Talk about their significance and relation to slavery.

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: What I wanted to show in that final chapter, that final epilogue, was the ways in which slavery, even after the end of slavery in the Northeast, even after the Northern colonies and Northern states had actually moved toward emancipation and finished their emancipation processes, they continued to have economic ties to the South and the West Indies. And so, if you—one of the ways you can trace that is just by looking at who became the president of these universities, who the presidents were. And the presidents were virtually always the sons or the sons-in-law of merchant traders, people who were West India suppliers. And so, after the slave trade ends and after slavery ends in the Northern states, one of the businesses that continues is supplying the South and the West Indies with everything—all the provisions that they needed to run the plantations.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to look at this picture again.


AMY GOODMAN: You’ve got Quincy. You’ve got Everett. You’ve got—what is it? Sparks?




AMY GOODMAN: And Felton.


AMY GOODMAN: Explain. For example, Mather. In fact, at Harvard University, there is a house named after Mather.

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Yeah, the Mathers actually go back a long way. And so, you know—and they actually are part of the colonial story of slavery, too. Increase Mather, of the second generation, is actually a president of Harvard, and he uses his slave, which was a person given to him by his parish—he uses his slave to actually run the business of the college in the colonial period. This slave runs errands between the various trustees. And he writes in his diary that he sent his Negro to do various bits of work for the college.

And if you think about, you know, Edward Everett, Jared Sparks, one of the ways that their influence—that they had managed to achieve the kind of influence that they did—Sparks, for instance, becomes rather famous, actually, for his writings about early American history. He becomes something of a really quite polished American historian, but that was actually a way of also creating ties with the South, intellectual relationships with the South. And so, his writings as a historian also allowed him to create intellectual connections to these very important regions, and regions that remained important in the financing of higher education long after slavery ends in the Northeast.

AMY GOODMAN: What about Yale University?

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Yale actually is a very similar story. Yeah, in 1701, when the original founders were actually meeting to establish what was then the Collegiate School, they—as one of their chroniclers puts it, they come from the various towns to meet up, and they’re followed by their menservants, or their slaves. The slave—the enslaved people are actually at the founding of the institution. And once it’s established, like most of the 18th century colleges—and especially by the 18th century as the slave trade peaks—the new business of higher education, the financial model for a successful college, requires in fact tapping into these new sources of wealth in the Americas. And that means the slave trade in the plantations of the South and the West Indies.

AMY GOODMAN: Did anyone at these universities—and I think you talk about at Yale—say no to slaves?

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Yes, yes. Yeah, there’s—at every moment that there’s a push toward slavery, there’s also anti-slavery. There’s an anti-slavery tradition actually emerging from the 17th century right through the 18th century. And much of it, because it’s an intellectual movement, because it’s a moral and religious movement, is actually housed on campus. And so you have this tension on campus. And I try and actually point that out at various times in the book.

One of the examples that I use, actually, relates to the image that you showed of the presidents, and particularly Quincy. Under Quincy’s administration, Charles Follen, the German historian—I’m sorry, the German professor at Harvard, who was a rebel of the—in Germany and who was chased out for his radicalism, comes to the United States, gets appointed professor of German at Harvard, and then is immediately attracted to the abolitionist movement. Follen is actually punished for that decision. He eventually loses his professorship. And when you trace the origins of the professorship, the funding had largely come from families with ties to the slave trade and slavery.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, that’s very interesting. What you point out at places like Harvard is that a lot of the endowments for the professor chairs—


AMY GOODMAN: —come from the slave trade.

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Yeah. The first—actually, the very first endowed professorship at Yale, the Livingston professor of divinity, actually comes from the Livingston family of New York and New Jersey. And it’s the second generation, Philip Livingston, gives it in, basically, recognition of the fine education that his sons had received at Yale. And Livingston is one of the—the Livingstons are one of the larger slave-trading families out of New York City, the rivals for places like Newport, Rhode Island, and Providence, which dominates the North American trade. Certainly the Philadelphians and the New Yorkers were trying to catch up.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to talk about the DeWolf family, the largest slave-trading family, in a moment.

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Sure, sure. Yeah, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to be joined by one of the DeWolfs, Katrina Browne, and how she traced the trade in her family. But I want to ask you about Princeton University.

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Sure. Princeton is, to me, one of the more interesting of the schools. You know, they’re all distinct in some ways. But, you know, founded in 1746 and founded in a religiously radical tradition, evangelical tradition, Princeton finds itself struggling in its early years. In 1768, it had just had a sequence of short presidencies, two deaths—including two deaths of the presidents. And they recruit the Scottish minister John Witherspoon. One of the Princeton alumni—then the College of New Jersey—is actually studying medicine in Edinburgh, and he’s acting on behalf of his college to recruit John Witherspoon of Paisley to come to New Jersey. Witherspoon eventually makes the decision—he and his wife Elizabeth—to cross the Atlantic and go to New Jersey.

And one of the things I argue in the book is that: What would make this successful minister from Scotland attracted to a relatively unsuccessful college in a colony that’s actually not in fact a powerhouse in North America? And the answer is really the extraordinary network, Scottish network in the Americas, the ways in which the Witherspoon family, in particular, had reached out across the Americas and branched out across the Americas and provided Witherspoon a way of actually securing and stabilizing the College of New Jersey by exploiting these family and national connections, the Scottish diaspora, in the Americas. And it included, particularly, Scots who were moving into the Carolinas and Virginia, into the backcountry of Virginia and the Carolinas, and into the Caribbean.

AMY GOODMAN: And what did that have to do with slavery?

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: That means that actually what he ends up doing is sort of pointing and looking south for new sources of students and money, as soon as he arrives. In fact, shortly after he arrives, he publishes a missive to the West Indies, in which he promises the planters of the British West Indies that their sons would be better off in Princeton, New Jersey, which is intimate and close enough where the faculty take very good care of the boys, rather than sending them to England, where young men from the West Indies are known to be wealthy and get preyed upon by people of loose morals and broad ambitions. So sending them to Princeton actually would be better for them, but it would also be better for Princeton. And he makes this—he’s not the only one to do this. I should point out that if you look at those colleges that are founded in the mid-18th century, they all send ambassadors to the West Indies in search of money and students.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about Betsey Stockton—


AMY GOODMAN: —who was enslaved by an early 19th century president of Princeton.

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Yeah, yeah. Stockton is actually the—was given to the wife of that president as a gift when she was a younger woman, and then the—through marriage, actually comes into the household of Ashbel Green, the president of Princeton—who ends up president of Princeton. He eventually emancipates her. He also actually establishes—and this is that tension between slavery and antislavery—he establishes a ministry with many of the people in the black community surrounding Princeton. He emancipates her. She lives in the president’s house and continues to work there, and actually becomes quite famous as a biblical scholar. She becomes quite good at biblical geography, and noted—

AMY GOODMAN: Spending most of her time in his library.

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Yeah, yeah—and noted for her geographic skills, her biblical geographic skills. She then eventually becomes a schoolteacher in New York and heads off to a mission to the Sandwich Islands, to Hawaii, where her skill with language and religion become actually critical to the success of the mission. And so, you have this person who is born enslaved and lives as an enslaved person on a college campus, and then who leads this extraordinary life afterwards.

AMY GOODMAN: You also talk about race science.


AMY GOODMAN: You talk about the search for cadavers for scientific research at these universities.

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Yeah, right, yeah. And one of the things I wanted to do with the book was to try and explain both how slavery and the slave trade provided the foundations for the rise of the—of higher education in North America, but I also wanted to explain the role that colleges played in perpetuating slavery and the slave trade. And that’s where you get to race science. That’s where race science becomes critical, because it’s precisely on campus that the ideas that come to defend slavery in the 19th century get refined. They get their intellectual legitimacy on campus. They get their scientific sort of veneer on campus. And they get their moral credentialing on campus.

And so, I wanted to trace that process. And one of the ugliest aspects of that is the use of marginalized people in the Americas, in the United States—its enslaved black people, often Native Americans, and sometimes the Irish—for experimentation, the bodies that were accessible as science rose. And science is rising in the 18th century in part by turning dissection and anatomy into the new medical arts. But that requires bodies. It requires people. In the British islands, that means you’re often exploiting Ireland. In North America, it means you’re often taking advantage of people who have no legal and moral protection upon their bodies: the enslaved.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you give an example?

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Sure. Actually, at Dartmouth, the medical college—it would be unfair to say that the medical college begins with this moment, but the teaching of science in Hanover begins when the physician to the president, the founder of Dartmouth, Eleazar Wheelock, drags the body of an enslaved black man, who is deceased, named Cato, to the back of his house and boils that body in an enormous pot to free up the skeleton, to wire it up for instruction. That act is not unusual. In fact, when the first medical colleges are established in North America in the 1760s—the first is at the College of Philadelphia, which is now the University of Pennylvania, and the second is at King’s College, which is now Columbia—when those institutions are founded, actually, they’re founded in part—part of what allows them to be established is access to corpses, access to people to experiment upon. And, in fact, it’s precisely the enslaved, the unfree and the marginalized who get forcibly volunteered for that role.

AMY GOODMAN: Craig Steven Wilder is the author of Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities . Oh, you can go to our website to read the book’s prologue at Professor Wilder teaches American history at MIT. He also taught at Williams College, as well as Dartmouth. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn to part two of our discussion with Craig Steven Wilder, author of a new book. It’s called Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities. It’s an astounding book.


AMY GOODMAN: Talk about where you began it. I mean, you’re a professor of American history, Professor Wilder, at MIT right now.


AMY GOODMAN: But you taught at Williams, you taught at Dartmouth.


AMY GOODMAN: Talk about Dartmouth.

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Dartmouth, actually, it was one of the more interesting cases. I started the book when I got to Dartmouth in 2002. And as I said, you know, it was supposed to be a tiny little article on how black abolitionists became professionals. How do you become a minister, a doctor, a teacher, in a nation where you can’t go to college? And so, the African Americans who oppose slavery actually have this big push into the professions, but they actually are excluded from colleges and universities. And so, one of the things that intrigued me, and particularly because I was at Dartmouth at the time, was the fact that Native Americans had been on campus, for 200 years by then. Native American students had been on campus for 200 years. And that suggests, in fact, when you say it that way, that Native Americans were somehow privileged, which we know is wrong. And so it really requires a rethinking of the college itself, the role of the college in the colonial world.

And in many ways, I think Dartmouth was a perfect example of what I ended up arguing in the book, that we have to think of colleges as animate, as actors in the colonial world and in the creation of the nation that we know. Eleazar Wheelock, the Reverend Eleazar Wheelock, who arrives in Hanover—after he gets his charter in 1769, he arrives several months later with eight enslaved black people, including a baby. He has more slaves than he has faculty. He has more slaves than active trustees. He has more slaves—if you do an honest accounting, he probably has more slaves than he has students. And by that time, although he spent most of his life as a missionary to Native Americans—and the college is founded, and certainly its supporters believe that he’s continuing the Native American ministry—in fact, Native American students had been relegated to what was basically a grammar school. And Wheelock was in the process of building a college for white students. And like a lot of colleges that took money for Native American evangelization, a lot of that money actually ends up going to support white students and transform them into missionaries and ministers.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, explain that. I don’t think people quite understand that these universities would go out to raise money.


AMY GOODMAN: And they would raise it by saying, "We’re educating Native Americans."


AMY GOODMAN: And it wasn’t only Dartmouth.

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Particularly in the 18th century, in the decades before the American Revolution, in the 20 years before the American Revolution, the colleges launched endless appeals and campaigns to Europe, but particularly to Britain, in search of dollars. At one point in the book, I point out that they’re literally bumping into each other in London soliciting wealthy donors, and ofter under the claim that they were educating Native Americans. Samuel Johnson, the founding president of King’s College, which is now Columbia, has a great exchange which highlights this, in which he proposes educating some Indian children from the Six Nations, the Iroquois Confederacy, and sends out a loose letter about this, and then quickly withdraws the idea because it’s just too hard to do. He’s not really interested in educating Indian children, but he is interested in making that appeal. And very often the colleges are sending ambassadors to Europe, in particular, under the claim that they’ll be evangelizing Indians. That begins really in the early 17th century with the very first of the British colleges, Harvard.

AMY GOODMAN: What happened at Harvard?

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Well, the sending off appeals to England claiming to and championing the evangelization of Native Americans. In 1649, the New England Company is established, and it’s a missionary corporation, which actually becomes a model for later missionary corporations like the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. But throughout the 17th century, one of the continuing themes of Harvard—the charter has changed to include Native American education as part of the mission. The first brick building on Harvard Yard is the Indian College. And I—

AMY GOODMAN: The first building in Harvard Yard—

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: The first brick building—the first brick building is actually the Indian College. And I point out in the book that, you know, you can raise money hand over fist in Europe for Indian evangelization. And these stories of radical Christians transforming native people into religious perfectionists, into models of Christian virtue, are actually, you know, just being eaten up in Europe.

AMY GOODMAN: Why in Europe?

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Well, I think in part because there’s a real use of Native Americans in—there’s a way in which Native Americans have now captured the European mind: exotic people of a different color and kind who both perplex and intrigue Europeans. And so you get a lot of conversation about the origins of native people, where they come from, how you explain them. You know, there’s a tremendous attempt to reconcile their existence in the Americas with biblical narrative, and then to missionize them.

AMY GOODMAN: And these people, who are presidents of these universities, from Dartmouth to Harvard, are ministers.

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Yeah, they’re ministers, and they’re often missionaries.

AMY GOODMAN: And they have slaves.

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: And they often have slaves, and they’re—they’ve often been Indian missionaries. So Wheelock has spent much of his—

AMY GOODMAN: The first president of Dartmouth.

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: The first president of Dartmouth has spent much of his life as an Indian missionary. But he’s also run a side business buying and selling people for labor, so that enslaved black people have been part of his life’s work from his earliest years.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you feel about this, Craig Steven Wilder, at Dartmouth yourself teaching, doing this research?

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: This slow, uncomfortable realization that you’re part of this world with this very broad, deep, painful history is, to say the very least, awkward. It was—it also became an intellectual challenge for me: How do I tell that story? And how do I get that story to an audience and get them to understand its meaning, what it means for us today and what it meant for us then? And so, I think, in some ways, as a historian it’s probably easier to deal with that realization, because we have the tools for then wrestling with it.

AMY GOODMAN: Did they ever try to get you to stop telling this story?

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: No, no. Actually they didn’t. And I have to give everyone a lot of credit. You know, one of the great things that happened is, you know, early in my career at Dartmouth I gave a talk on a part of the book that—what’s now a small part of the book, you know, and the president of Dartmouth at the time, Jim Wright, was sitting in the front row of that talk and gave me a great handshake and a hug afterwards.

And, you know, I often tell the story of going into archives to do the research for this book, from the Carolinas and Virginia to eastern Canada and Scotland. And when I first started, I was somewhat cautious about what I would say, you know, when they ask you on those forms, "What are you studying?" And so, I would say vague things like 18th century education or colonial schools. And as the archivists and librarians sort of—as I got to know them and they found out more about what I was doing, one of the really wonderful things that happened is not only were they quite supportive of the project, but they often in fact introduced me to and brought me material that I would never have known was in the archives. Sometimes they sort of slipped it to me across the table as if they were doing something wrong, but they—

AMY GOODMAN: What were—

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: —were always supportive. They were always warm.

AMY GOODMAN: What were some of your great discoveries there?

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: I think, you know, the presidents who owned slaves, what happened to those enslaved people during their lives. You know, at William & Mary, one of the early founders actually ends up killing a child.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain that story.


AMY GOODMAN: Who was it?

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: It’s Reverend Grey, and he orders a child to be beaten. And the child is beaten so severely that he later dies. The—his parish actually basically pays him in tobacco to leave. And that was one of the sort of really quite difficult moments in writing the book, because there’s a way to tell that story, but it’s a difficult story to tell. And there’s something to be known about the nature of colleges in there, the nature of the colonial world in there.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean there’s a way to tell that story?

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Well, I think there’s a way to tell that, meaning that, you know, the—part of my job as a historian is to make that story available to people, to explain it, and to let them understand how that moment comes into being. And it’s one of many in which children actually play a role in the book, because one of the patterns that I had noticed as I was doing this research over years was just the number of children who were owned by college presidents required some kind of explanation, when you really think about how many of them had made specific requests for children.

AMY GOODMAN: Go through them.

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: And so I end up—well, let—you know, let’s think of some. Ezra Stiles, who’s the president of Yale during the American Revolution, earlier, as a Newport minister, purchases a child, a boy, named Newport, in Newport, Rhode Island. He’s a Rhode Island minister before he becomes president of Yale. And then he emancipates Newport on the day before he becomes president of Yale, before he enters the president’s house. Jonathan Edwards purchases a girl—I believe he names her Venus—in Rhode Island.

AMY GOODMAN: And Jonathan Edwards is?

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Is—becomes the president of Princeton. He is earlier an Indian missionary in Connecticut, a rather fantastic career as an evangelical minister and one of the leading evangelicals of the 18th century, probably most famous for the founding evangelical sermon, as it’s often called, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." Edwards purchases a girl. The—at Dartmouth, Wheelock owns children. The trustees at Harvard are actually demanding children. Increase Mather gets a boy when he’s president of Harvard.

And I needed to explain this phenomenon, and so one of the things I looked at was I really tried to examine the history around that decision-making process. And in the book, I point out that it has a lot to do with the rising fear of slave revolts in the 18th century colonies and the belief that children would be more easily socialized into slavery and less likely to revolt. And so you end up with these extraordinarily descriptive requests for slaves, the absentee planters of the West Indies who are living up in Massachusetts writing back to their overseers with very exact descriptions of the age, gender and type of personality that they want in a slave. You know, one writes that "I lost my boy," meaning he died, "and I want to replace him with another." And therefore you also end up with a slave trade, an Atlantic slave trade, which deals in human beings, but about 20 percent of whom are children.

And I explore one of those voyages in the book, in which dozens of children, some as young as two and three years old, are being held captive on board and die during the journey. And that’s a Livingston investment, the Livingstons who go on to become the funders of the first professorship, endowed professorship, at Yale, founders of Columbia and trustees at Princeton and at Rutgers.

AMY GOODMAN: Rutgers, you haven’t talked much about.


AMY GOODMAN: Tell us a little about Rutgers.

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: You know, the—it’s a fascinating institution for a lot of reasons. And the original Queen’s College, which is a Dutch Reformed college, the Dutch colonists are establishing their own institution, and it’s, as we all know, really quite close to the College of New Jersey, Princeton, and Princeton is originally founded in the eastern part of the state over by Newark and then drifts over, and the governor, Governor Belcher, actually helps it eventually settle in Princeton, New Jersey. And—but, in fact, actually, one of the things that happened is there’s a lot of pressure from the College of New Jersey, from Princeton, for the Queen’s College, Rutgers, to actually fold in. But, in fact, the denominational allegiances are too strong for that, so the Presbyterians remain at New Jersey, Princeton, and the Dutch Reformed at Rutgers.

One of their earliest presidents, [Jacob] Hardenbergh, the Reverend Hardenbergh at Queen’s College, manages to purchase slaves despite the fact that the college is doing quite poorly. You know, Queen’s is so financially strapped that it closes multiple times in its early history, and for long periods. But on the eve of one of its first closures, when it just has to shut down and stop operations, Reverend Hardenbergh manages to buy a second slave for his household. And what does that tell us about colleges in the 18th century? One of the things that it should remind us is that colleges survived on the margins in the 18th century. You know, they were constantly seeking sources of funding. And the most obvious and immediate sources of funding were the rising wealthy traders of the big port cities, dominated by the slave traders, and then the planters of the South and the West Indies who had both cash and children but very few schools. As one historian of the British West Indies puts it very nicely, the British West Indies actually didn’t need colleges because of mainland North America. And there are very few institutions of higher education, or even secondary education, established in the West Indies during the colonial period, because those planters could sent their sons to Europe or to North America, the mainland.

AMY GOODMAN: And how does the Civil War play into this? Because you have all these Northerners who owned slaves, but they not only owned slaves, they run institutions that justify slavery.


AMY GOODMAN: It really challenges the whole notion of the Civil War—the North against, the South for, and so you fight over the evil of slavery.

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: And I argue in the book that one of the things that Northerners contribute to the—Northern intellectuals contribute in the decades before the war is the attempt to establish a common ground between the North and South, an intellectual solution to the crisis over slavery as that crisis boils up. And they actually manage to claim a new public position in this role. I argue in the book that actually what allows the college to become—the university to become what we know today, an independent, influential actor in public affairs, rather than an offshoot of churches, which is what they are in the colonial period, right—what allows them to break free of the church and establish themselves and their own prestige in the public arena is the ability to articulate a new vision of the United States, a new future for the United States. But it’s premised on racial science. It’s premised upon a claim that academics, intellectuals, can make a better, more informed, truer argument about the future of the nation and the question of slavery. And they use race science to make that claim. And so, in the final chapter of the book, I look at the overrepresentation of academics, of college professors and college presidents, in racial cleansing movements.


CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Like the American Colonization Society, which is established in 1817, originally with the aim of removing free black people from the United States to some place outside of North America. In 1822, the Liberia colony is established and named.

AMY GOODMAN: You mean the country in Africa, Liberia—


AMY GOODMAN: —where—

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Where free black people are to be transported to. And they’re also overrepresented in the debates about Indian removal in the South. And they’re overrepresented, I point out in the book, in debates about and the process of establishing missions to convert Jews living in the United States or fund their removal from the United States. And when you put it all together, what you end up with is this extraordinary vision of the United States as a white Christian society, racially cleansed and racially purified. But what that actually means is race becomes the common ground between North and South. Academics, and Northern academics in particular, begin to articulate a vision for the future of the United States as a racially purified society, where slavery could continue to exist as long as it was contained and as long as it served the interest of the white South. But the goal of the nation, the future of the nation, the vision of the nation, would be a white Christian society.

AMY GOODMAN: One image you have in the book is from 1826. It’s a flier, and it’s Washington College, now Washington and Lee, advertising, quote, "Negroes For Hire." It says, "Twenty Likely Negroes belonging to WASHINGTON COLLEGE, consisting of Men, Women, Boys and Girls, many of them very valuable," will be hired out for the year. Explain the significance of this ad.

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: This is one of the institutions—and there are many of them—that owned slaves, owned slaves and used their labor to run the campus, to take care of the faculty and the students, and then in—as the seasonal demand for enslaved people changed, further profited off of them by leasing them out and leasing out extra laborers. We can think about this in a number of ways. Washington and Lee, William & Mary in Virginia, in a single year at one point in its early history, purchased 17 people for the campus. The University of North Carolina—and then in the North, you have something similar. Eleazar Wheelock, the founder of Dartmouth, as I said, you know, shows up with eight enslaved people, and so that enslaved people are the—in some ways, the majority population on the rough early campus of Dartmouth College.

And for a lot of people doing this kind of work, studying the relationship between colleges and universities, I think there’s been this look for the sort of smoking gun. And the smoking gun is always—it seems to me to be, what they’re looking for is whether or not the institution owned slaves. Well, lots of them do. But when their presidents do, they effectively do. And when the—when the professors own slaves, the institution effectively owns slaves.

AMY GOODMAN: And the students?

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: And the students bring slaves to campus. You know, George Washington’s son, Jacky Custis, his stepson, Washington nixes the idea of sending him to William & Mary because—

AMY GOODMAN: Washington himself didn’t go to college.

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Yeah, right, he didn’t go to college. And General Washington doesn’t want to send Jacky to William & Mary because Jacky already has bad habits, and he thinks his habits will get worse among the sons of the elite planters in Virginia. And so, he brings him up to New York and enrolls him at King’s College, what’s now Columbia. And Columbia is glad to have him, in part because this creates another entrance to the wealthy planters of the South and a new way of making new ties with a new group of students and potential donors and enrollments. But what’s fascinating is that, you know, Washington shows up in New York with his stepson and his stepson’s slave Joe. Joe actually also comes to campus. And the president of Columbia at the time, Myles Cooper, outfits Jacky with a suite of rooms that then he has—that Jacky has painted and readied for himself, and Joe is basically occupying what’s basically a large closet in one of the rooms.

That’s not unusual. You know, at William & Mary, probably about 10 percent of the students in the 1760s brought slaves with them to campus. And there are examples—you know, there are other examples people are actually looking at right now, other scholars, of these same phenomena, North and South.

AMY GOODMAN: In all of your research, what were you most shocked by?

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: I think, honestly, the thing that most shocked me, there are these moments where you—you wrestle with difficult questions. You know, certainly when you’re seeing—when I was doing the work on the slave ship, The Wolf, which the Livingstons send out to the African coast and which takes, you know—

AMY GOODMAN: And Livingston is tied to Yale.

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Yeah, Livingston is tied to Yale, to Columbia, to Princeton and to Rutgers.

AMY GOODMAN: And the ship is called?


AMY GOODMAN: And it is sent to?

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: It’s sent to the African coast on a slaving mission that takes basically a year and a half, an extraordinarily long time. The ship has—the captain has a hard time actually purchasing enough captives to get a full complement, as his surgeon will say, and so he’s holding people below deck for months as he hops between these various ports on the African coast attempting to purchase more people. A lot of the people on board, a lot of the captives on board, are actually small children. And so, you know, this is a voyage in which the surgeon actually goes through—the ship’s surgeon goes through a series of emotional crises himself, which he records in his diary. Babies are dying, two and three years old. He’s doing autopsies on them to try and figure out why they’re dying. He’s finding, you know, that they’re dying of the flux. They’re dying—they have worms, some 12 inches long. It’s a horrific tale. The—

AMY GOODMAN: Didn’t people rise up on the ship?

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Yeah, there’s actually an attempted slave revolt on board before the ship departs. More people actually die on the return journey across the Atlantic. And when they arrive back in New York and the Livingstons put them up for sale, they’ve probably ended up killing as many people as they’ve sold.

AMY GOODMAN: So it was about 200 people, or a little less, on board to begin with.


AMY GOODMAN: There’s like 88 or something left.

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Yeah, and the population drops significantly. But the number of people who are killed just along the African coast is just astounding and disturbing. And I want to remember, as I sort of, you know, retell that story in the book, that for me that’s probably the hardest and most shocking thing, but it’s shocking for all of us. You know, it’s—I’m not making a sort of proprietary claim upon, you know, emotional outrage to that kind of historical event. And so, the thing that probably shocked me most was that you have those moments where you just, as a historian, have to find a way to tell a gruesome story, because that story is necessary to understanding in three dimensions this moment in time. But even more shocking was how many of those stories there are. You know, you can find a version of that story for every college that’s established in the colonial world. You’re playing basically two degrees of separation from some horrific slaving voyage.

AMY GOODMAN: Craig Steven Wilder, I want to ask you to stay with us. We’re going to trace one family’s roots—


AMY GOODMAN: —to the largest slave-holding family in America, and I’d like you to comment on it and how it links to the universities of this country.


AMY GOODMAN: Craig Steven Wilder is the author of Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities .

This piece was reprinted by Truthout with permission or license. It may not be reproduced in any form without permission or license from the source.

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