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.

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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.


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.


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.

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