The Chronicle Review

Stained by Slavery

How Craig Steven Wilder exposed higher education's past

March 02, 2017 Premium

Mark Abramson for The Chronicle Review
Craig Steven Wilder

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."

Reckoning With Slavery

In recent years, scholarship on the history of slavery has leapt beyond academe to force a societal reckoning. This article is one in an occasional series on fresh questions scholars are asking as America confronts its history of human bondage.

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.

Mark Abramson for The Chronicle Review
Craig Steven Wilder at Yale's Calhoun College. Like all of America's oldest universities, he says, Yale "was born and nurtured in the slave economies of the Atlantic world."
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 exhibits.

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 linchpin 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 economy.

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 runs.)

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.