Ebony & Ivy: Race Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities by Craig Steven Wilder

Review of Craig Steven Wilder, Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013)


It has become an article of faith that American exceptionalism starts with our lack of a feudal past. Settled by sturdy farmers and righteous artisans, the story goes, we were spared the long, bloody transition to capitalism that marked European history. A broad commitment to popular government and Enlightenment values helped solidify the foundations of a middle-class republic whose pragmatism and ability to compromise guaranteed political stability and broad prosperity. It’s true that slavery delayed the completion of the Founders’ hopes, but it was a “peculiar” institution confined to the backward South and doomed to disappear as a democratic consensus developed around the repudiation of human bondage and the political equality of all people.

This comforting account has served to introduce generations of Americans to the conviction that we are well on the way to overcoming the painful history of slavery. There has been a great deal of progress of course, but it’s not because the United States is exceptional in the sense of our civic fairy tale. If we have come any closer to having an honest conversation about slavery and race, it’s because we’re beginning to grapple with what really happened, what it’s meant for the country’s history and what it signifies for our future. All that’s required is a measure of intellectual honesty and truth-telling.

This is where critically-informed, path-breaking scholarship can truly serve human progress. There’s been a fair amount of it in recent years, punctuated by Eric Foner’s biography of Abraham Lincoln, Michelle Alexander’s account of “the new Jim Crow” and Ruth Simmons’s bravery in opening an examination of Brown University’s long and lucrative connection to the slave trade. They are now joined by Craig Steven Wilder’s Ebony & Ivy.

Wilder’s account of the deep material and ideological connections between American universities and human bondage comes as no particular surprise but is a stunning revelation of the real, profane meaning of original sin. In recent years we’ve come to understand that slavery was a national phenomenon   that stood at the origin of almost every important American institution. No good can come from denying this. The shame, denial, guilt and hypocrisy that have so distorted our understanding of our shared history can be dispelled by an honest accounting of origins and a commitment to move past sunny ignorance. Ebony & Ivy is a giant step in that direction.

From education, medicine and law to finance, shipping, insurance, construction, real estate, credit and agriculture, the American past bears the indelible stigmata of slavery and the slave trade. It was based in the South to be sure and slowly disappeared from Northern states early in the 19th century, but it remained a national and international institution. Virtually every important American economic sector was dependent on the international trade in human beings and on the bondage of enslaved people. Wilder covers only a brief moment by focusing on a handful of the country’s oldest and most venerable colleges and universities, and the book’s meticulous scholarship and deep immersion in primary sources conveys only a snapshot of what it means to live in a civilization that was founded on slavery and justified by race science. Ebony & Ivy tells a story that we thought we knew but only begins to scratch the surface of what we need to know. As extraordinary and infuriating as it is to read about the role of the country’s most venerated educational institutions in this process, the same story could be told about hundreds of other pillars of the American past – and present. This is why Professor Wilder’s book is such a pathbreaking piece of historical scholarship and interpretation.

The story has a material root and an ideological explanation. American colleges were founded as instruments of European influence as the imperial powers sought to defend, regulate and extend their colonial holdings. An important part of a systematic effort to seize territory and hold off rivals, they were intimately connected to the slave trade. Slave traders and slave owners became the first presidents and trustees of the new institutions. Slaving and trading families funded, staffed and populated them. Their physical plants were often built and maintained by enslaved persons. Harvard targeted wealthy Southern families as a source of students and income very early in its history, and other colleges soon followed the money. Profits from slave labor endowed and built William and Mary, a tax on tobacco exports providing much of the money for construction, endowment and salaries. Commercial connections between New England and the Caribbean sent wheat, corn, horses, timber, fish and staves to organize the sugar industry, while slave plantations could focus on sending sugar back north to finance the construction of yet more ships to serve yet more sugar plantations. “For two centuries the Caribbean and southern markets buoyed the New England economy,” reports Wilder, “and ships from Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire filled West Indian ports.” As the colonial economy became restructured around shipping, insurance, finance and trade, merchant families became the chief sponsors of colonial colleges and their sons became students. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Rutgers, Dartmouth, Columbia, Penn and Brown relied on the generosity of the colonial elite and were thoroughly enmeshed in the political economy of human bondage and servitude. Merchants, slavers and slave-traders were prominent backers and organizers of every colonial college as churches, hospitals, libraries and colleges reflected the material rewards of a deep investment in Atlantic slavery. As Wilder puts it by way of summary:

In the decades before the American Revolution, merchants and planters became not just the benefactors of colonial society but its new masters. Slaveholders became college presidents. The wealth of the traders determined the locations and decided the fates of colonial schools. Profits from the sale and purchase of human beings paid for campuses and swelled college trusts. And the politics of the campus conformed to the presence and demands of slave-holding students as colleges aggressively cultivated social environments attractive to the sons of wealthy families.

Where money reigned, ideas followed. American colleges and universities were instrumental in creating the ideological justification for the slave trade and – a most important connection that Wilder makes throughout the book – the removal and extermination of the native populations. From the Christianizing project of the country’s first colleges to the development of medicine and the elaboration of a “science” of racial superiority, American colleges were central to creating the twinned ideology of Indian removal and African enslavement. The dream of a white civilization undergirded both projects. The earliest colleges received land from conquered and slaughtered Indian communities and were central to the project of subduing the native peoples.

Slavery and Indian expulsion went hand in hand. African slaves displaced native populations as investment in land worked by slaves became a permanent source of income for young colleges and universities. Slaves were frequently brought to campus by presidents, trustees, faculty members and students as personal servants. On campus after campus, the labor of enslaved people was indispensable to the life of American colleges – all the way from emptying chamber pots to cooking, running errands for students and faculty, cultivating gardens and the like. All this was part of the project of dispossessing Indian people and “whitening the promised land.” College presidents, board members and faculty often profited from the fraud, violence and coercion that accompanied the dispossession of the Indians. Colleges were indispensable in training missionaries, teachers, land speculators, surveyors, lawyers and others who were engaged in driving Indians away. The continent was to be given over to white Christian people; as the ideological tasks of American colleges shifted to providing a unifying ideology for white people, race science imparted a rational and enlightened justification for superiority and domination. America was to be a white republic, part of God’s racial project of possessing the earth. Militarization, evangelization and education – organized by the state, church and academy – were enlisted in the struggle against the native populations. If original sin has any meaning, it describes America’s lunge to modernity: “the century of the Enlightenment brought the high point of African slave trade and the rise of systematic racial extermination.”

As faculty and students from North America crafted an ideology that justified expansion and bondage, scientific racism became the particular creation of American intellectuals. The systematic attempt to discover the presumed divisions of the human population required access to slaves and Indians. The Christian story of descent from a single pair was married to providing a scientific basis for white supremacy. Before long a worldwide science of cataloguing, studying, comparing and analyzing different people arose, much of it founded on differences in skin color. Since nature condemned Africans to inferiority, slavery was their natural condition. Anatomy, physiology, dissection, surgery and chemistry were forged in the crucible of slavery; “the genesis of American medical science corresponded to the rise of anatomy and the ascent of race,” Wilder reports. As American theologians and churchmen made their peace with slavery, so did her scientists and doctors. As the nineteenth century moved toward civil war and a reckoning with original sin, the American Colonization Society – born on the country’s college campuses – expressed the conviction that removal would guarantee a white republic and solve the country’s race problem. Indian removal made African colonization look like a reasonable way of avoiding a race war. The results were familiar:

In the decades before the Civil War, American scholars claimed a new public role as the racial guardians of the United States. They interpreted race science into national social policy to construct the biological basis of citizenship and to assert that the very presence of nonwhite and non-Christian peoples threatened the republic. They laid the intellectual foundations for a century of exclusion and removal campaigns. The intellectual roots of the cyclical political and social assaults upon Native Americans, African Americans, Jews, Irish, and Asians can be traced back to this scholarly obsession with race.

Ebony & Ivy is a magnificent book, an outstanding example of the sustained power of first-rate scholarship married to the moral imperative to tell the truth. It’s noteworthy as much for what it says as for what it doesn’t, for its close attention to detail as much as for the vast areas of American origins that lie outside the book’s scope. In his classic account of how the modern world got going, Marx reminds us that “the discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalized the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation.” The organization of these “momenta” fell to the state, the church and the college. We are all indebted to Professor Wilder for revealing how easily and quickly American intellectuals and colleges were made part of the apparatus of extermination, enslavement and racism.


John Ehrenberg is Professor of Political Science at Long Island University.



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