Ebony and Ivy: our history and our present

A new book discusses the history of slavery in universities

ebony coverI’ve been doing a small, non-random survey of people with whom I came into contact over the last couple weeks. I asked them how they felt about the fact that some of our best universities were not just places of higher learning; they were bastions of slavery, even in the North. White people were, like me, shocked. African Americans said they were not shocked or surprised. They knew. We didn’t. Maybe a lot of us took some comfort in thinking slavery was a Southern problem.

In Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, Craig Steven Wilder assembles evidence from a variety of sources to describe how some of the best universities in the U.S., North and South, bought and sold slaves and used them to perform many of the regular duties required to keep universities running. Slaves were part of the histories associated with some of this country’s top universities. For example, “Prior to the Civil War, Washington Duke (who later endowed Duke University) and his family worked together farming wheat, oats, and sweet potatoes on over 300 acres of land which had been bought and inherited over the years. The work was strenuous, and for assistance Washington Duke hired slaves from other plantations.  He owned one slave girl who worked as the housemaid.”

The Wall Street Journal, not a newspaper that people would accuse of hysteria about racism, in reviewing Wilder’s book, said that “Ivy League schools were both early beneficiaries of the slave economy and 19th-century purveyors of racism in the guise of scholarship.”

Craig Steven Wilder, an M.I.T. history professor, spent a decade researching “Ebony and Ivy.”

The NY Times review of Ebony and Ivy concluded, “Universities were the third pillar of a civilization based on bondage.” The NYT also said that a number of universities, including Brown University and UNC-Chapel Hill, had undertaken studies of their own histories of slavery. Wilder cited the story of Betsey Stockton, an enslaved woman belonging to an early-19th-century president of Princeton, who used her master’s library to study biblical literature and eventually became a missionary in Hawaii. “Something like that changes the way you think about these institutions,” Mr. Wilder said. “You realize, people of color have always been here.” Perhaps, that is the good in our sordid collective past: that African Americans always were part of our universities, and they have always belonged here as much as white people.

To be fair, a Google search identified many positive reviews of the book and a number of negative reviews, like this one that criticized the book’s exclusive focus on slavery without considering countervailing forces in society that were mitigating slavery and setting the stage for its demise.

Our history contributed to the inequality Martin Luther King sought to overcome

Reading the book was one of my ways to prepare for Martin Luther King Day. Clearly, universities contributed to the history of racial inequality in the U.S. We must own that. Perhaps,  it is just one more reason why it is so hard to overcome patterns of diversity inequality that persist today. At our School of Public Health and many other schools of public health, people are working hard to attract diverse students and faculty and to conduct robust, meaningful research on health disparities. We must work even harder at it.

It is a good day to consider how far we have come and how far we still have to go. Happy Monday. Barbara


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