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the story behind the book

The nature of the colonies through lens of the colleges

DAVID WILSON FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Historian Craig Steven Wilder begins his discomfiting “Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities” with the story of Henry Watson, a young Harvard graduate and native New Englander who moved to Alabama in 1830 hoping to teach and later study law; instead Watson, who was educated at a school that benefited from and defended America’s “peculiar institution,’’ became a slave owner, working his land with more than 100 enslaved human beings. “On the eve of the Civil War,” Wilder writes, “this Connecticut Yankee belonged to the planter elite.”

Wilder, who heads the history faculty at MIT, isn’t picking on Harvard. “One of the reasons the book took me so long to write,” he said from his Cambridge office, “is that I wanted to write in a way such that no one college was the culprit.” Indeed, as he went on, research showed not that any one college or group of colleges was uniquely entwined with the slave trade, but rather that “all of the colleges were deeply rooted in this economic culture — this was the economy of the colonies. It’s not a comment on the nature of the colleges, it’s actually a comment on the nature of the colonies themselves.”

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So why look at the great American elite institutions, from Cambridge to New Haven to Princeton? “What the colleges provide is an extraordinarily precise lens to look at how these colonies developed over time,” Wilder said. “The question is really about the importance of slavery and servitude to early American history, the rise of the colonies, and eventually the rise of the nation.”

Wilder suggested that he hopes readers will find information that clarifies not only how colleges operated in the 18th century, but also how they might move into the 21st. “There are some really critical questions elite institutions have to address,” including issues of equality and access. “My hope is that the institutions will have the courage to really look at their past and use their pasts as at least something of a guide to address these critical questions they face today.”

Wilder will read Monday at 7 p.m. at Harvard Book Store.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.
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