America’s Top Colleges and Universities Have a Hidden Legacy of Slavery

David Austin Walsh, History News Network, October 23, 2013

In 2006, Brown University issued an extraordinary report detailing the university’s relationship with the slave trade. The authors, drawn from Brown faculty, administration, and alumni, acknowledged the deep, intertwined history of the slave trade and the university–and the role slave labor played in the very construction of the school. The report made headlines across the country, not least because it was commissioned by Brown president Ruth Simmons, the first African American and the first woman to become president of an Ivy League university.

But Brown is hardly the only venerable university in the United States that is reckoning with its hidden legacy of slavery. Craig S. Wilder, professor of history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, demonstrates in his acclaimed new book Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, that practically every college and university founded during colonial-era America–Harvard, William & Mary, Yale, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia, Brown, Rutgers, and Darthmouth–has a history of slavery to confront.

Professor Wilder recently spoke with me over the phone from his office in Cambridge about his book, the research behind it, and what America’s oldest and most elite colleges can do to confront this painful history.

* * * * *

Ebony and Ivy explores the intertwined relationship between the first colleges and universities in America and slavery. It argues that most older institutions of higher education in America were built on the back of slave labor. Were there particular universities that were relatively more invested in the slave economy?

Yes, and I think part of the goal [of writing the book] for me was to explore, to find out, to discover, the role that slavery played in the founding and the rise of these institutions.

To see that at Harvard in its earliest years, one of the residents of the campus was an enslaved man, or that the first eight presidents of Princeton–then the College of New Jersey–were slave owners, and enslaved people lived in the presidents’ houses and served the presidents and students. To see the evolution of the Harvard/Yale/Princeton faculties, and the founding moment of Yale, when the founding trustees gathered to plan out the organization and wrote the bylaws of the new school–they were actually accompanied by their slaves to that meeting.

So one of the things I found really interesting while researching the book was how intimate the relationship was between the academy and slavery in the colonial world, and how much these colonial institutions depended upon enslaved people, but also on the broader economy of the slave trade.

You made the point in the book that many of the founders of these universities became quite wealthy as merchants profiting off of the slave trade.

Yes, that’s true. But you really have to look very closely at the denominational roots of the schools, and the denominational origins of the colonials.

From the perspective of the twenty-first century, when you think about Columbia or the University of Pennsylvania, or Dartmouth, you think of them as wealthy, historic institutions. But these were pretty lean institutions in the eighteenth century, when they were founded. They were local institutions. The ministers and local activists founded these schools turned to local sources of wealth, and in the mid-Atlantic and New England, that meant they often turned to families who made their fortunes in the Atlantic trade, and a significant proportion of that trade was in African slaves.

{snip}

Now, going back to something we touched on a little bit earlier, the use of slave labor to actually build these universities and operate them. I realize it’s very difficult to actually find slave narratives and stories, but were you able to piece together any stories from any of these campuses about the slave laborers who lived there?

Well, you don’t evidence of it on every campus, but you do find evidence of it on enough campuses and in enough archives to realize it was fairly common to use slave labor. For instance at Brown, when the original trustees were raising donations for the school, local residents of Providence and Newport donated cash, lumber, and other goods, and they donated the labor of their slaves. You can actually see people donated the labor of their enslaved person for a certain period of time. At the College of William and Mary, teams of slaves were used for the upkeep of various buildings, and the College actually held a fairly sizable population of slaves for use as campus servants, dedicated at times to specific buildings. Some of the students at William and Mary brought slaves to campus with them.

Eleazar Wheelock, the founder of Dartmouth, arrived in New Hampshire in 1770. He brought with him eight enslaved black people, and he wrote in his narrative [memoir] about the early struggle to build the college (he later used the narrative as a fundraising tool). He wrote about the use of his slaves to help lay out the fields and raise some of the original structures of the college to get things going. He actually has several places in his narrative about the things he’d assigned his laborers to do to improve the campus and expand his ability to take in students.

{snip}

Do you feel in the aftermath of the Brown report–and quite possibly in the aftermath of the publication of your own book–there will be a reassessment at these various colleges and universities of institutional memory?

Yes, I think so, but I think the Brown report did that. And I think what has happened since then has really been striking. If you think about what’s been happening at Emory, Alabama, North Carolina, and Harvard, faculty, students, librarians, alumni, and now even the presidents of these institutions–and even the trustees–are increasingly taking steps to recognize this history, to acknowledge it, and to address it in institutionally specific ways.

I think in many ways that’s a measure of just how powerful the Brown report was. The impact it’s had on the broader galaxy of elite academic institutions. Not all have done it, but a lot of them have. And I think that’s only going to move forward. One of the great lessons of the Brown report, and of Brown’s experiences in history, is that seven years later, Brown is stronger because of the decisions made between 2003 and 2006, when President Simmons commissioned the report and when the report was released. It’s a stronger community, and it’s taken a leadership position in a very difficult public engagement with history that’s painful, but that we have a need to address, and that we ultimately cannot escape.

Topics: ,

Share This

We welcome comments that add information or perspective, and we encourage polite debate. If you log in with a social media account, your comment should appear immediately. If you prefer to remain anonymous, you may comment as a guest, using a name and an e-mail address of convenience. Your comment will be moderated.
  • Bah humbug. This is all skid greasing for reparations.

  • MekongDelta69

    This reads more like, “The Legacy of Leftist Groveling.”

  • Extropico

    Without a corollary report of the legacy of pirating and slavery in Africa, this piece is just a typical hatefest against YT designed to further shake us down. We ended slavery before Africa. Never. Ever. Forget. It. Go to certain areas of Africa today away from White aid workers and you’ll still see it.

    • Pro_Whitey

      One more reason why colonization of freed black slaves – that is, getting them the hell out of the U.S.A. as soon as possible – was the right idea, and the failure to carry it out, and instead carry out a war on the South, is the single greatest disaster and wrong turn in American history.

  • guest

    Colleges and universities were places to go for greater education. Today’s colleges and universities (if one can even still call them that) have now become left-wing insane asylums where the only priority is looking for legacies of racism in everything and trying to be seen as the most ethnically diverse.

  • sbuffalonative

    Yet another ‘search and destroy’ mission; just like the book, ‘IBM and the Holocaust’.

    The blatant accusation here is that these universities ‘got rich’ off slavery.

    While it’s tempting to say, ‘it’s good that they’re going after liberal universities’, I think this is wrong for two reasons. First, every accusation reinforces the call for reparations. The second is that liberal universities are easily swayed by charges of ‘racism’ so they will begin setting up programs to overcompensate for their past ‘sins’. This will mean they will find new ways to accept more unqualified minorities.

  • Alfred the Great

    Slavery was legal at the time, wasn’t it? I agree with what the other guys on here said before my post.

  • Spartacus

    Why is she so upset ?Slavery is her people’s only contribution to civilization, she should be honored they weren’t entirely useless .

  • Northern guest

    Canada did not participate in African slavery but native people in Canada and I imagine in the USA, often enslaved each other. I have not read of any demands for reparations. As wikipedia notes, “One slave narrative was composed by an Englishman, John R. Jewitt, who had been taken alive when his ship was captured in 1802; his memoir provides a detailed look at life as a slave, and asserts that a large number were held.” This is just how things were but native bands seem to get along well with each now. Jewitt’s descendants are not demanding reparations.

  • MikeofAges

    Don’t miss the point. What you have here is more justification for the alumni of these institutions to justify their privileges by harassing other people of their own color.

  • Rhialto

    The problem is that todays White men just aren’t being Racist enough. So poor oppressed Craig S. Wilder must go back hundreds of years to find demonstrably evil White men. The poor baby!

    I have a suggestion that will appeal to Blacks. Since the evil White men are identified, do the following:

    1-Locate their graves.
    2-Split the head stones, and pulverize and destroy all monumental objects.
    3- Dig up the remains, burn them a, and scatter them at a dump.
    4-Erect a KFC over the grave site.

  • APaige

    So this is why LaQueffa has a low GPA and test score.
    If black labor is so important to building successful institutions of higher learning what is the issue with HBCUs and Africa?

  • rowingfool

    Who cares? and So what?

    Why do they keep dragging up stuff that happened 300 years ago and using it in these “gotcha” moments? This is so irrelevant today. How will this HELP black people of today adjust to the 21st century? How will this help them get along and get ahead?

    Ans. It doesn’t. It just engenders a sense of grievance and reinforces feelings of resentment wherein black people say to themselves; “Well, there’s no point in doing anything constructive because my people never get credit for what they did anyway.”

    The person or people responsible for dredging this old stuff up may think that they are doing black people a favor but they are not. They are the worst enemies black people could have.

  • Our “troublesome history” hurts more than theirs:

    Heather Muller, Julie Love, Jennifer Ross, Channon Christian, Eve Carson, Lauren Burk, Emily Haddock, Brittny Watts, Jane Juergens, Colleen Ritz.

    Losing our beautiful White girls and women at the hands of Diversity is worse than lynching ever was.

    “Segregation is looking better and better all the time.”
    -RevJeddy

    • Mergatroyd

      Why don’t you make up 1000s of flyers of this graphic and start posting them everywhere around town.

  • Truthseeker

    I remember years back reading about the “Yale Slavery Report.” Some students at Yale compiled a bunch of historical notes about Yale’s connection to slavery, which of course led to a bunch of hand-wringing by the administration.

    One of the people the report condemned was former president Timothy Dwight, based on certain quotes of his that were taken out of context. In fact, Dwight was an opponent of slavery, not the supporter these partial quotes would have you believe. However, that didn’t stop therm from putting up a plaque in Dwight Hall apologizing for its namesake’s pro-slavery views.

    These academics are so afraid of appearing “racist” that they’ll go to any length to avoid it. Even if the facts are on their side, the perception is more important. Reports like this one are only designed to cow them into submission.

    • Mergatroyd

      Reports like this are designed to extract big money from deep-pocketed institutions. Accusing corporations and other organizations works and works well and they’ve been forced to cough up big bucks and hire and promote more blacks to make the problem go away. Either that or pay off the race hustlers by offering perks to their relatives or making large contributions to their private bank accounts.
      No wonder so many are moving offshore, that’s the only way they can escape black demands.

  • Bertha Biggs

    I wish these people would get off the pity train and move forward instead of looking backwards for excuses.

    • Mergatroyd

      Moving forward doesn’t pay. The pity train pays and pays and pays and punishes whitey at the same time and that’s why blacks use it.

  • Luca

    Why don’t all these negro professors do a study of how many mud huts were built in Africa using slave labor, or how many Roman aqueducts, or how many Nazi war machines, or how many galley slaves rowed ships? Who cares, other than the Marxist propaganda pity machine?

    African slaves in North America were better off than the poor Whites and better off than most blacks in Africa. The slaves had the perfect socialist model of being fed, housed, doctored and clothed from cradle to grave.

    They simply weren’t given wages or education which we now know would have been a waste anyway.

  • David Ashton

    What about slaves today – nearly 30 million in the world according to the recent Australian Global Slavery Index?

  • “Gibs me some money! De CIA took all my money wen dey gots me hooked on crack, gnome sayin? My baby momma needs ta be haben her hair and nails done, and I needs some shiny stuff so I can looks like a afawete.”

    If these universities do pony up some Danegeld, it will likely be one of the less harmful ways they spend money.