[Marxism] How Craig Steven Wilder exposed higher education's past

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Mar 2 06:41:57 MST 2017

Stained by Slavery
How Craig Steven Wilder exposed higher education's past
By Marc Parry MARCH 02, 2017  PREMIUM

In the fall of 2006, Brown University published a landmark report 
detailing the historical complicity of its founders and benefactors in 
slavery. Craig Steven Wilder, a historian then at Dartmouth College who 
had spent years researching related themes, thought he knew what would 
happen next. Brown’s peers would borrow the report’s template to examine 
their histories of bondage. And Wilder, his own project put out of 
business by the new research, would move on to studying something else.

But to his shock, Brown’s sister Ivies responded mostly with silence. 
Asked for comment, Richard C. Levin, Yale’s president at the time, told 
the campus newspaper that Yale’s slavery links were "simply a fact of 
history." Student journalists looking into the University of 
Pennsylvania’s ties reported that their campus was "all clear." 
Harvard’s president, Drew Gilpin Faust, a Civil War historian who wrote 
a book about how society reckons with trauma, informed The Harvard 
Crimson that she would not start an institutional investigation.

"The institutions themselves did really virtually nothing, officially," 
says Wilder, 51, now a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of 
Technology. "That’s what kept me going … this sense that there was a 
story to be told that we weren’t telling."

The result, published in 2013, was Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the 
Troubled History of America’s Universities (Bloomsbury). Wilder’s book 
broadened Brown’s work to show that all of the country’s oldest seats of 
higher learning had been entangled with slavery. It traced how Ivy 
League institutions deployed slave labor to build campuses, depended on 
slave traders and owners for money and students, and developed the 
intellectual arguments that nourished slavery.

But the book’s release didn’t end Wilder’s efforts to expose the slave 
roots of academe. It deepened them.

More than a decade after the Brown report, universities are now obsessed 
with the legacy they once avoided. Georgetown. Rutgers. Columbia. Hardly 
a month passes without fresh headlines about another institution 
confronting its most sordid heritage. Scholars at the vanguard of this 
movement are scheduled to convene at Harvard on March 3 for a conference 
on slavery and universities. Faust is to share a stage with one of 
America’s most prominent writers on race, Ta-Nehisi Coates. Even the 
event’s overflow venues were booked weeks before.

"The more that have done it, the more the center of gravity has 
shifted," says James T. Campbell, a historian at Stanford University who 
chaired the committee that produced Brown’s slavery report. "Now, the 
question you’d be asked would be, Why wouldn’t you? Every other 
university has done this work."

If there’s one scholar most responsible for shifting the conversation 
about universities and slavery — the guiding hand behind the headlines — 
it’s Wilder. How did he become the guru of a new movement?

To understand that story, it helps to watch Wilder in action recently at 
Yale. It was there, in 2001, that the first stirrings of academe’s 
modern slavery reckoning began. The issue came up as Yale celebrated its 
tercentennial, a moment the university chose to highlight its historical 
contributions to abolitionism. In response, three graduate students 
challenged that narrative with a paper and website that presented Yale’s 
much longer embrace of slavery. Among their findings: Eight of the 
university’s 12 residential colleges had been named for slaveholders.

“Campuses are not museums for the emotional and psychological bigotries 
of the alumni.” Fast forward to 2015. Students nationwide rose up to 
protest racism on campus and beyond. In New Haven, minority activists 
demanded the renaming of Calhoun College, a residential community that 
honored a Yale graduate, South Carolina senator, and leading 
19th-century champion of slavery: John C. Calhoun. What followed was 
more than a year of debate, protests, vandalism, petition-writing, 
committee-forming, and report-drafting, as Yale initially pledged to 
keep Calhoun’s name before reversing course and scrapping it.
And so, just over a week after the university announced that decision, 
Wilder arrives in New Haven to help the campus think through how it got 
to this point and where to go now.

Over two days of public lectures and panel discussions in late February, 
Wilder offers some 200 students and professors a kind of People’s 
History of the Ivy League. The settings for his various events capture 
the dissonance of this reckoning with slavery. Surrounded by gilded 
crests, soaring red-draped windows, and busts of mustachioed eminences, 
Wilder explains that Yale, like every college that survived the colonial 
era, "was born and nurtured in the slave economies of the Atlantic world."

In 1718, trustees of what was then known as the Collegiate School 
received a gift from the Welsh merchant and slaver Elihu Yale. Some 
cash, 400 books, and a painting of George I — for this bequest, the 
board renamed the school after him. In 1722, Yale built a house for its 
rector in part by getting the General Assembly of Connecticut to tax 
slave-produced rum imported from the West Indies. Not long after, the 
Rev. George Berkeley, an adviser to several American colleges, gave Yale 
a small slave plantation whose rents funded its first scholarship and 
graduate-level courses.

By the 1830s, Wilder says, slavery in Connecticut was dying. But the 
state’s connections to the Atlantic slave economy were deepening. Cotton 
and sugar manufacturing in the North paid for the expansion of old 
campuses and the creation of new ones. Yale trawled for students and 
donors among the rich slave-owning families of the plantation South and 
the West Indies. Its trustees and alumni invested in those areas. Its 
professors crafted the ideas deployed to defend slavery.

Consider the colonization movement, a centerpiece of Wilder’s research. 
This venture, born out of the religious revivalism that swept Northern 
states in the early 19th century, originally aimed to resettle 
Christianized African-Americans as evangelists in black nations abroad. 
It attracted many abolitionists in its early years. But by the 1830s it 
had morphed into a stridently antiabolitionist society that preached the 
danger of allowing free black people to remain in the United States. 
Yale, at this moment, was the group’s intellectual stronghold.

Wilder traces the roots of Yale’s current naming controversies to the 
first half of the 20th century, when a new racial narrative was cemented 
into buildings like Calhoun College. That story relegated the Civil War 
to the past in favor of interregional unity. It cast Reconstruction as 
an unfortunate episode that had been corrected by Jim Crow. It viewed 
Calhoun as a unifying figure whose architectural presence might help to 
diversify the Yale student body by attracting students from the South.

Wilder conveys his material in a studiously dispassionate monotone. But 
when he invites comments from the audience at the end of his lecture, a 
young man steps up to the microphone to ask a personal question that 
makes Wilder’s eyebrow lift and his lips purse.

"As black professionals," the man asks, "what is our relationship to 
these institutions as we become more and more aware that our ancestors’ 
blood is stained in the very walls and the very spaces that we work and 
study in today? And what is the institutions’ responsibility to bear 
witness to these experiences and atrocities?"

Wilder answers by sharing his own experience of being a first-generation 
college student. Raised by a single mother in pregentrification 
Bedford-Stuyvesant, in Brooklyn, he earned degrees at Fordham and 
Columbia. He felt gratitude for access to those institutions. But 
researching his book changed that. His main concern now, he says, is 
that all students — be they first generation, immigrants, or 
undocumented — feel the same sense of ownership over universities. That 
means colleges can’t hide behind history.

"Campuses," he says, "are not museums for the emotional and 
psychological bigotries of the alumni."

As the auditorium erupts in applause, Wilder issues a further challenge. 
A primary ingredient of social justice, he says, is truth. "Yale has to 
take responsibility for investigating and making public its history with 
slavery and the slave trade," he says. "Because it’s a measure of our 
integrity that we do that. We can’t claim to be what we claim to be — 
institutions that produce knowledge and pursue truths — if we’re afraid 
to pursue truths about ourselves."

Wilder stumbled into his current role as a one-man 
truth-and-reconciliation commission for universities and slavery. His 
first two books were about the history of race in New York City. He 
began what would become Ebony & Ivy in the early 2000s as a result of 
his long professional residency in New England, first at Williams 
College, then at Dartmouth and MIT.

What interested him initially was a group of small secondary schools in 
the region, where black abolitionists, who were largely excluded from 
colleges and universities, got their educations. But driving around from 
town to town, Wilder began to discover a more complicated racial legacy. 
The exclusionary policies had been selective. The first American Indian 
student had graduated college in the second half of the 17th century. 
The first black student graduated more than 150 years later.

Wilder found himself pursuing a broader set of questions. What role had 
colleges played in deciding who was educable, and who wasn’t? How did 
their ties to slavery shape their relationships with different 
populations of nonwhite people? How did they contribute to colonization 
and conquest?

It was the Brown report that eventually helped Wilder define the shape 
of his book. Brown’s project had begun in 2003, during a period when the 
reparations movement was polarizing the nation and elite universities 
were threatened with lawsuits. Ruth J. Simmons, president of Brown and 
the first African-American to lead an Ivy League institution, appointed 
a Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice to examine both Brown’s 
historical ties to slavery and reflect on the present-day meaning of 
that history. The effort yielded a 107-page report, a community-outreach 
campaign to manage the political and public consequences of opening such 
a charged topic, and a series of policy recommendations on matters 
ranging from memorializing slavery to recruiting African-American students.

Wilder felt the project had one flaw. It made Brown seem unusual. "It 
focused the attention on Brown," he says "in ways that provided a bit of 
shelter for some of the other institutions."

Nailing down that larger story would not be easy. Ivy League colleges 
had mythologized themselves with carefully pruned histories, Wilder 
says. This meant, for example, that published works would euphemize 
slave traders as "Atlantic merchants."

"He can’t go to the institutional histories of Princeton or Columbia or 
Yale and find in secondary sources good references to how slavery might 
have impacted those institutions," says Martha A. Sandweiss, a Princeton 
historian who is leading a project on her university’s ties to slavery. 
"He had to go to the archives, and he had to ask new questions of 
familiar documents."

Over time, though, other sleuths joined him in those archives. In the 
absence of institutional commitments like Brown’s, a grass-roots 
movement sprang up. Sandweiss at Princeton, Sven Beckert at Harvard, 
Karl Jacoby at Columbia — these and other professors started classes 
about their universities’ ties to slavery. Undergraduate and graduate 
students did much of the research. Librarians and archivists mounted 

In weaving together those individual stories, one turning point came 
when Wilder realized that the number of colleges in British America had 
more than tripled in the quarter century between 1745 and 1769. The new 
academies included Codrington College (in Barbados), the College of New 
Jersey (Princeton), the College of Philadelphia (Penn), King’s College 
(Columbia), the College of Rhode Island (Brown), Queen’s College 
(Rutgers), and Dartmouth College. What struck Wilder was the timing of 
this boom. It came just as the slave trade peaked.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, slavery was the lynchpin of an economic 
network that linked Europe to Africa and the Americas. Familial 
slave-trading firms in New England and the Mid-Atlantic shipped African 
captives to slave plantations in the Caribbean and the South. Merchants 
moved slave-produced products like sugar and tobacco to the mainland 
colonies and European markets. Northern producers provisioned the 
Southern and West Indian plantations with food and supplies. In the 
Mid-Atlantic and New England, slave labor powered the expansion of 
European settlements.

All of the new colleges were established with direct connections to that 
coercive economy. When the Rev. Eleazar Wheelock set out to found 
Dartmouth, he arrived with his family, some students, and eight slaves. 
Soon after Penn was set up, it started running fund-raising missions to 
wealthy planters in the West Indies. Founding trustees of Columbia, like 
Philip Livingston, a future signer of the Declaration of Independence, 
invested in slave-trading ventures. In the colonial and early national 
period, Wilder says, about 80 percent of newly established academies 
failed. Those that survived did so by attaching themselves to the slave 

Within the history profession, Wilder’s book is part of a renewed 
emphasis on slavery’s significance to life in the Northern colonies and 
states. Academic reviewers have greeted it warmly. Their quibbles focus 
on his habit of clobbering readers with page after page of evidence — 
family trees, businesses, and so on. Some also push back, gently, on his 
thrashing of their own institutions’ contemporary behavior. At one of 
Wilder’s Yale talks, David W. Blight felt compelled to point out that 
his university has operated a center for the study of slavery and 
abolition for 18 years — "the first of its kind in the world" — which 
had been "part and parcel of at least the attempts Yale has made at 
times to face this past." (It’s the Gilder Lehrman center, which Blight 

For scholars steeped in the history of slavery, it’s not shocking that 
colonial colleges were linked to bondage. As James Campbell, of the 
Brown committee, puts it: "Why would we be surprised that institutions 
of this vintage were entangled with an industry that was, at the time, 
the most important and profitable global industry? Would we be shocked 
if in 300 years people came back and looked at the endowment portfolios 
and donors of American universities today and found people who were 
involved in banks or finance?"

But Wilder’s book does shock students, whose activism helps explain why 
it has attracted such sustained interest. Take Yamiesha Bell. The 2015 
Rutgers graduate says that, like many millennials, she got to college 
having been taught to see slavery as distant history. As for 
universities, she considered them engines of equality. It was in an 
Africana-studies class that she first encountered Wilder’s book. "It was 
devastating," she says, "to have so much love for an institution but 
also recognize how ugly of a past it had." The work helped her see 
continuities between past and present racial injustices on campus.

In 2014, Bell co-founded a campus chapter of Black Lives Matter. Like 
her peers elsewhere, she put the university’s racial history on public 
trial. She recruited student protesters by sharing Wilder’s research on 
Rutgers. She also used Ebony & Ivy to pressure the university’s 
chancellor, Richard L. Edwards, emailing him about its findings and 
following up in person. When Edwards appointed a committee to study the 
university’s history of slavery and Indian land dispossession, Wilder 
advised its members on issues both methodological and moral.

"It’s not just about the history," says Marisa J. Fuentes, a Rutgers 
historian who led research for the university’s slavery report. "It’s 
about how students and faculty of color are feeling about their position 
and their standing in the university. So getting the chancellor and the 
university to articulate a moral vision — of a commitment to diversity, 
a commitment to retention — was something that he actually made clear we 
should be talking about with these administrators."

The Rutgers episode is one story from dozens of campuses that Wilder has 
visited, often giving specialized talks with titles like "Slavery and 
the Little Ivies" (at Bates) or "Catholic Colleges and Slavery" (at 
Boston College). Despite the attention to his work, Wilder doesn’t think 
colleges are doing nearly enough. Many slavery-history projects exist, 
yes. But you can count on one or two hands the number of slavery-linked 
universities that have taken institutional responsibility for 
researching and publishing those connections, he says. Most have not.

Elite universities, he adds, are comfortable dealing with minorities 
when those institutions get to appear benevolent. They resist any 
narrative that puts minorities in the position of making demands, he 
says, often patting themselves on the back for making decisions that 
others forced upon them.

Back at Yale, sitting shoulder to shoulder with students and researchers 
involved with the Calhoun College controversy, Wilder makes a demand of 
his own. Whenever a university changes a name, he says, they should not 
erase how and why that decision came about. They should memorialize it — 
right where it happened.

Marc Parry is a senior reporter at The Chronicle.

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