The Man Who Exposed Higher Ed’s Slave Past

Historians in the News
tags: slavery, Ebony and Ivy, 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."

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. ...

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