By Gary Shapiro
America’s earliest academies, like the nation itself, have a legacy of slavery woven into their very fabric. In his latest work MIT historian Craig Steven Wilder (GSAS’89,’93,’94) examines the tarnished relationship between the Atlantic slave trade and the rise of the American college.
His new book, Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, documents the extent to which the nation’s oldest colleges perpetuated, maintained and benefited from the slave economy. Many were founded on land taken from indigenous peoples, built by enslaved workers, or funded through fortunes made from slavery. Slave owners became college presidents, the enslaved lived on campuses, and colleges courted Northern slave traders to serve as trustees and benefactors and sought donations and students from Southern planters. Colleges promoted and perpetuated “scientific” theories of racial inferiority.
“…you cannot understand the value of educational diversity without talking about the past…”
On April 1 Wilder returned to campus at the invitation of historian Eric Foner and President Lee C. Bollinger to discuss Ebony and Ivy at a University panel in Low Library that was convened and moderated by Foner, the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History. Wilder’s address was followed by a discussion that included History Professor Karl Jacoby and Ansley T. Erickson, a historian of educational inequality at Teachers College. “Part of the reason the issue is an important topic is that it helps show the centrality of slavery to the founding of the American colonies and ultimately to the founding of the United States,” said Wilder. “The first three colleges in British America—Harvard, William & Mary and Yale—had slavery at their founding moments.”
In his introductory remarks, President Bollinger talked about the relevance of this history to current issues of race in America. “We all say that educational diversity is an extremely important value,” he said. “But you cannot understand the value of educational diversity without talking about the past and the legacies and the history of how we got to where we are.” Columbia, Bollinger noted, is exploring this history in a number of ways. Last fall Jacoby devoted a long-running seminar called “The Historian’s Craft” to the topic of slavery at the University. Next spring Foner will lead a research seminar on Columbia’s connections to slavery.
“Wilder’s work opens up a considerably neglected subject and greatly expands on work done recently on individual universities by looking at the role of these colleges in general as a group,” said Foner, who advised Wilder on his graduate coursework while he was a student at Columbia.
Wilder’s book began as a research paper on how African American abolitionists in the decades before the Civil War became doctors, teachers and ministers even though they were excluded from American universities. The roots of such exclusion go back even earlier—to before the Revolutionary War.
Between 1745 and 1769, a time when the slave trade in the Western Hemisphere was peaking, the number of colleges in the colonies tripled, Wilder said. At the time Columbia was founded in 1754, as King’s College, more than one-fifth of New York City’s population were slaves.
Watch the full April 1 Ebony and Ivy discussion that was held on campus.
Situated in an emerging port city, Columbia “attracted more sons of wealthy Atlantic merchants, including slave traders, than any of its peers or rivals,” Wilder said. Indeed, when George Washington brought his teenage stepson to New York in 1773 to enroll in King’s College, the young man’s slave accompanied them and they lived on campus in a suite of rooms provided by Columbia President Myles Cooper.
In addition, the University’s first law professor, James Kent; its president during the Civil War, Frederick Barnard; and founding father John Jay (CC’1764) all owned slaves. “Both the Kent and Jay families held slaves while serving at Columbia. Barnard had his slaves while he was at universities in Alabama and Mississippi,” said Wilder.
Alexander Hamilton, who attended the College until 1776 and became an opponent of slavery, nevertheless escaped poverty by apprenticing with a slave trader, sailed to New York aboard a slave trader’s ship, and had his education at King’s College bankrolled by profits from slave labor. Both Hamilton and Jay went on to become founding members of the New York Manumission Society, which sought to free slaves.
Wilder, who grew up in the largely African American Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, earned two master’s degrees and a doctorate in history at Columbia and taught at Williams and Dartmouth colleges before joining MIT in 2008. In 2004, as the University celebrated its 250th year, Columbia awarded him the University Medal for Excellence at Commencement. Wilder said the aim of his scholarship is to make the past visible and approachable. “You cannot tear down a wall of segregation and injustice by hiding the tools that were used to build it,” he said.