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The History of America's Ivy Leagues is Muddied With Slavery

The new book Ebony and Ivy uncovers the shocking truth about a history that none of America's universities want to admit being connected to.

Photo Credit: Bloomsbury Press


The following is an introduction by author Craig Steven Wilder to an excerpt from his new book Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery and the Troubled History of America's Universities: 

It is difficult to imagine college campuses as sites for exploring the lives of enslaved people in colonial America; however, early campuses were spaces in which faculty and students routinely interacted with slaves. The commoditization of African people through the Atlantic slave trade produced the wealth that subsidized the rise of the colonial academy, and it also supplied laborers who served the students, faculty, and governors of colonial schools.  Slaves worked in the houses of many of the presidents and faculty, some students brought slaves to campus as personal servants, unfree people maintained college buildings, and college boys often used enslaved people for entertainment, including boxing and dancing.  The historical and archival records reveal quite a bit about the very intimate ways in which enslaved people shaped the day-to-day experience of higher education in colonial America.

Slaves were present at the founding of many colleges—including Yale, Princeton, and Dartmouth.  Colonial schools did not live innocently in a world with slavery; slavery on campus was not the mere residue of the larger slave economy.  College governors exploited the slave economy to secure the futures of their schools.  They recruited students among the wealthy slaveholding families of the South and the West Indies, and carefully supervised and catered to privileged boys from the plantations.  They solicited donations in these same regions, and also turned to the Mid-Atlantic and New England slave traders for benefactions. 

I hope that Ebony & Ivy is more than a book about colleges and slavery.  I hope that it contributes to a body of recent work that establishes the centrality of slavery to the institutional and culture fabric of early America and to the rise of the United States.  

-Craig Steven Wilder

The following is an excerpt from the new book Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities by Craig Steven Wilder ( Bloomsbury Press, 2013): 

In the daily routine of a college there was a lot of work to be done, and enslaved people often performed the most labor-intensive tasks. In the mornings, the professors and scholars needed wood for fires, water for washing, and breakfast after morning prayers in the chapel. As students ate, their rooms were cleaned, chamber pots emptied, and beds made. Multiple meals had to be produced every day in the kitchens. Ashes needed to be cleared from fireplaces and stoves, and floors needed sweeping. Clothes and shoes were cleaned and mended. Fires were lighted and maintained. Buildings wanted  for repairs, and servants were impressed into small- and large-scale projects. There were countless errands for governors, professors, and students. “Titus my serv[a]nt, brought from mr. Treasurer [James] Allen (to whom I sent a Rect) Ninety Pounds Bills of Credit, being for the third Quarter, ending 17 Mar. last,” President Wadsworth recorded in the spring of 1728. Workers on more remote campuses  cultivated farmlands, purchased and traded at markets, kept animals and butchered meat, and manufactured other goods on-site. In Princeton, President John Witherspoon consolidated a five-hundred acre estate, a mile from the college and with an uninterrupted view of the campus. At least one slave remained at Tusculum, where the president maintained a working farm to pursue his agricultural interests while renting the remaining lands to tenants.

Faculty and officers often testified to the difficult lives of enslaved people, but not always sympathetically. Professor Hugh Jones of William and Mary bitterly demanded that the slaves be segregated, “for these not only take up a great deal of Room and are noisy and nasty, but also have often made me and others apprehensive of the Danger of being burnt with the College thro’ their Carelessness and Drowsiness.” The Reverend Samuel Kirkland, founder of Hamilton College, encountered numerous enslaved and free black people during his early missions among the Iroquois. The Indian commissioner Sir William Johnson had slaves at his Mount Johnson estate along the Mohawk River in New York. There were also numerous black people living as residents and adoptees in Iroquoia. “I should not come here and live so much like a negro as I do,” Rev. Kirkland complained to his mentor Eleazar Wheelock; “I have lived more like a dog than a Christian minister.” Kirkland believed that his miserable living conditions were hurting the prestige of the faith among the Indians.

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