Governor of Massachusetts, minister to Great Britain, president of Harvard, US secretary of state, congressman, and senator, Edward Everett was one of many affluent and influential individuals in the 19th century to declare that America’s public schools and its colleges sustained the liberty of its citizens. Everett told students at Amherst College in 1835 that he prayed that freedom and knowledge would “be the birthright of our children to the end of time.”
American institutions of higher education have remained the envy of the world. According to Craig Steven Wilder, an MIT history professor and author of 2001’s “In the Company of Black Men: The African Influence on African American Culture in New York,’’ they also have a morally suspect history.
Inspired by a 2006 report, commissioned by Ruth Simmons, president of Brown University, which documented the involvement of its founders in the slave trade, Wilder chronicles what he calls a “long sordid affair” that implicates many now revered colleges and universities, in the North and South, in the exploitation and oppression of Indians and African-Americans from the Colonial period through the 19th century.
Wilder argues in “Ebony & Ivy’’ that academic institutions were anything but “innocent or passive” on issues related to race and racism, breaking his history into two parts. The first half explores how institutions of higher learning became beneficiaries of the expropriation of Indian lands and of the slave economy. In the second half, he demonstrates how colleges took a lead role in cultivating and disseminating the ideas that legitimized “the dispossession of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans.’’
While Wilder provides substantial evidence for his passionate indictment of the pernicious social ideas and practices of the era, he is less successful, at times, in putting those charges in historical context.
Substantiating the racist attitudes and actions of college graduates, professors, presidents, and philanthropists, alas, is not difficult. Slaves served faculty and students; college officials solicited and were glad to accept financial support from slave owners and slave traders. College men, Wilder writes, “felt particularly entitled to terrorize” slaves and servants. When they served in the Army, college graduates “in the name of white civilization . . . eradicated Indian civilization.”
And Thomas Jefferson, Wilder reminds us, deemed blackness “an eternal monotony” and an “immovable veil” over the senses. To prove his allegations that blacks constituted a separate species, the founder of the University of Virginia pointed to “the preference of the Oranootan for the black women over those of his own species.”
Although nothing excuses this behavior, it is important to understand that it was prevalent during these years. Indeed, Wilder quotes 19th-century Yale professor Benjamin Silliman on this very point: “Our northern country was not then as fully enlightened as now regarding human freedom.” That Silliman used this “fact” to excuse himself from responsibility for what he called “a mild form’’ of slavery in the North does not make it any less relevant. Wilder does not demonstrate, moreover, that racism was more pervasive in institutions of higher learning than elsewhere. Nor does he identify individuals who, at the time, for example, characterized gifts from slave traders to colleges as tainted money.
And so it’s difficult to understand precisely what he means when he declares that “[h]uman slavery was the precondition for the rise of higher education in the Americas”: “the American campus stood as a silent monument to slavery”; its fate “had been intertwined from its beginning with the social project of dispossessing Indian people”; and that “American science evolved with American slavery.”
Slavery and racism are, without doubt, our nation’s original sins. It is still valuable for all of us to learn about or be reminded of the degree to which all of our institutions, including colleges and universities, were intertwined with and dependent upon compulsory labor, the dispossession of land, and the profits that resulted from them. Though Wilder could have provided a deeper and more contextualized understanding of the complexities of the past and the beliefs and behavior of Colonial and antebellum Americans, “Ebony & Ivy’’ does force us to confront some uncomfortable truths.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin professor of American studies at Cornell University.