Slavery and elite
 education in the US

Ebony and Ivy:

Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities

Craig Wilder’s book Ebony and Ivy conducts a comprehensive review of the ways that many of America’s earliest and most elite universities—Harvard, Yale, Brown, Columbia, Princeton, Dartmouth, Rutgers, William and Mary, the University of North Carolina, and Williams—were complicit in and dependent on the Atlantic slave trade and the practice of slavery itself.  The book traces the financial gains these universities derived from buying and selling enslaved persons, and from the direct, enforced extraction of their labor. It examines as well the revolts that began within the slave system, and details how these revolts were seen inside institutions of higher education. Wilder’s research process covered ten years and was conducted at many government and elite university archives, as evidenced in the extensive endnotes of the book, extending over a hundred pages.

In another theme, Ebony and Ivy locates and dissects the ideological “race science” developed at elite universities to justify slavery and the decimation of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, and to make both appear natural, necessary, and just. Finally, Wilder shows how the movement to abolish slavery began in tandem with the American Revolution and reached its height in the decades preceding the Civil War. The book demonstrates as well how the abolition movement and its opposite, the “colonization” movement that sought to return Black people to Africa, were attempts to resolve slavery’s contradictory impact on American society.

A succinct overview of the book’s research findings appears in its first pages:

The founding, financing, and development of higher education in the colonies were thoroughly intertwined with the economic and social forces that transformed West and Central Africa through the slave trade and devastated indigenous nations in the Americas.

The academy was a beneficiary and defender of these processes.

Ebony and Ivy shows how profits from the slave trade underwrote the development of mechanized textile production in Britain, a primary stage in the industrial revolution. The book details as well how slavery contributed to and depended on the development of institutions of higher education in the American colonies, the social and economic importance of early colleges to the development of the American colonies, and the complicated ways in which the slave trade and slavery itself were interwoven with the origins and development of those colleges.  Most importantly, Wilder emphasizes how, from its earliest days, the ruling institutions of the North American colonies and the state were based on the racist goal of building an all-white civilization, enabled by the forced removal and utter annihilation of the indigenous occupants.

British religious institutions built colleges as part of the ideological framework that made possible the industrial revolution in America. Already grasping the importance of church and university support in earlier colonial campaigns in Scotland and Ireland, Britain followed suit in colonial North America: “The English sought to open a college during the formative years in Virginia…. Raising a college was part of a layered English strategy to maintain religious orthodoxy among the colonists and to check the power of the [Native American] confederacy under Chief Powhatan, the father of Pocahontas.” This college—William and Mary—was chartered in 1693 by King William III and Queen Mary II. Its founding trustees were “primarily planters and merchants from the colony’s leading landholding and slaveholding families. . . . The charter funded the College of William and Mary from the profits of slave labor.” Built on territory seized from its Native American inhabitants, its buildings and infrastructure were built by the enslaved labor of both Africans and Native Americans. Many trustees, presidents, faculty, and students owned slaves; some students even brought their personal slaves to campus to wait on them. 

This process paralleled the building of other institutions, including Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Dartmouth, Rutgers, and Brown. Founded over a period of roughly 130 years, mostly in northern states, these schools were part of the Atlantic economy based on the slave trade, and all eagerly sought funding and student enrollments from plantations in the Deep South, whose wealth was derived directly from the growth of cotton on acreage tended by African slaves. Wilder tells the fascinating and horrifying story of how the intertwined relationships of eighteenth-century religious institutions, higher education, merchant capital, and the industrial revolution developed together and were crucial to each other:

American colleges had their genesis in this Atlantic economy. Colonial merchants were not for the most part scholars, but they became the patrons of higher education. The wealthiest families had traditionally sent their sons to Britain to finish their studies. . . . However, as their wealth increased and as their American identities evolved, merchant families became the sponsors and the patrons of colonial colleges.

Colleges like Harvard, Yale, and Brown were all founded by Christian denominations, working initially through missionary efforts to evangelize Native American peoples. Harvard’s president Henry Dunster, “an experienced missionary . . . augmented the charter to include the evangelization of Native people . . . . The mission included ‘the education of the English & Indian Youth of this Country in knowledge and godliness.’” Wilder shows how brutal this mission was, how much harm it did to the Native Americans it encountered, and how sending news of this missionary effort back to England was, at least in part, a fundraising subterfuge to encourage wealthy patrons in Britain who found information about Native Americans exotic and appealing. Among the book’s starkest examples of such evangelizing operations are its descriptions of the kidnapping and sale or trade of small Native American children, along with attempts to educate and “civilize” them. This process had begun earlier among the French colonists:

The colonists already had a thriving trade in Indians. “I am happy to baptize a little Hiroquois [Iroquois] child who is to be taken to France. The boy was “never to return to this country,” he continued, as “he was given to a Frenchman.” The four-year-old “cried all the time before his baptism, and ran away from us,” the priest laughed; “I could not hold him.”

At about the same time as the colonists’ first contacts with Native Americans, the first enslaved Africans were being brought to North America. These enslaved persons were at first called by their owners “indentured servants” or, more presciently, “apprentices for life.” Reflecting his portrayal of European settlers’ savage abuse of Native Americans, Wilder shows the utter brutality, from beginning to end, of the capture of African people, their transport to the Americas in “narrow, cramped, and filthy holds of slave ships;” their sale, in lots and individually, at public slave markets; and their centuries-long enforced labor on enormous plantations on the Caribbean islands and in the Americas.

A great strength of Ebony and Ivy is Wilder’s emphasis on the militant resistance by Indians to the enforced seizure of their lands by European colonists, and on the revolt of slaves from almost the beginning of the slave system, some even on board slave ships. One of the first of such revolts in North America occurred in New York City: “In April 1712, thirty enslaved Africans and a few Spanish Indians revolted in New York City and killed nine white people.” Given the colonists’ fear of “a general slave uprising,” what happened next was no surprise, in that “the government responded with punishments designed to terrorize unfree people,” including savage beatings, torture, and, importantly, that “Africans were forbidden from gathering in groups larger than three.” The enslaved proportion of the city’s population in 1740 was fully 20 percent.  In March and April 1741, a rash of burnings took place in New York City, later determined by a grand jury to have originated in a plot among slaves “belonging to the colony’s most prominent families.” This was no accident, in that the slave system in North America was developed by and belonged to many of the basic founders of American capitalism, who were founders, as well, of the first American colleges.

Even after 1808, when the import of African slaves was made illegal and the northern states had begun moving toward emancipation, slavery continued to enrich the region. Wilder illustrates how this process worked at some of  the most elite universities in America by telling the life stories of some of the early presidents of these institutions who were virtually always the sons or the sons-in-law of merchant traders. Wilder shows, as well, how some of these early institutional founders also conducted the very lucrative business of supplying all the manufactured goods needed to run the southern plantations where slavery still operated until countered by the outbreak of the Civil War and was then outlawed in Confederate territory by the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation.

Another important emphasis of the book is Wilder’s description of the movement to abolish slavery, some of which began at the very institutions of higher education that were complicit in the origins and development of the slave system. Accordingly, the book reveals the tension between the ruling bodies’ proslavery foundations and the dramatic emergence of the abolition movement.

Wilder explores further how up to the Civil War, the dominant attitude of the American ruling system was to establish an all-white social system in North America, resting on the backs of enslaved Black people in the Deep South. In this context, the book shows how the American Colonization Society (ACS) was begun in 1816 to send freed slaves back to Africa as an alternative to their emancipation in the United States. Like the extirpation of Native Americans, colonization was far more accepted by university presidents and politicians than was the abolition of slavery. Some founders of ACS had come to believe that “only black people could Christianize Africa. Blackness, like geography, was a divine limitation.” The colonization movement was organized, in part, as a Christian missionary enterprise based at some elite universities, including Columbia, Princeton, and Yale, and strongly opposed the abolition movement.

Another central part of Wilder’s research concerned the development of “racial science,” an ideology predicated upon “the bodily and mental inferioriority of the negro,” and aiming at a kind of species purification scheme in a fully “whitened” America. Like the colonization movement, development of this “science” flourished at some of the same elite colleges active in the decolonization movement and was based in the same set of ideas that saw a democratic, racially integrated America as both impossible and undesirable. Wilder shows that both the colonization and racial science movements were attempts to resolve America’s hostile racial divide in ways that ignored the essential injustice and utter violence of slavery, paying no regard to the wishes or welfare of the formerly enslaved persons. 

A great strength of Ebony and Ivy is the way it shows, through the long history of slavery in America, that there were alternative forces and ideas opposing it—much weaker and more scattered for much of the time, but always there. The book ends in the 1840s as the crisis of the slave system was heightening, to culminate some two decades later in the Civil War.

Wilder’s work is an important exploration of the deepest contradiction in American history, highlighting slavery’s enduring impact and the long struggle against it. Wilder has made a useful contribution to showing how institutions of higher education were sites both of slavery itself and of the movement against it. His book can inform and inspire today’s struggles against racism and all sorts of oppression and inequality.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Issue contents

Top story