The Secret History of How Slavery Helped Build America’s Elite Colleges
The following content originally appeared on Democracy Now!:
A new book 10 years in the making examines how many major U.S. universities — Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown, Dartmouth, Rutgers, Williams and the University of North Carolina, among others — are drenched in the sweat, and sometimes the blood, of Africans brought to the United States as slaves. In "Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities," Massachusetts Institute of Technology American history professor Craig Steven Wilder reveals how the slave economy and higher education grew up together. "When you think about the colonial world, until the American Revolution, there is only one college in the South, William & Mary ... The other eight colleges were all Northern schools, and they’re actually located in key sites, for the most part, of the merchant economy where the slave traders had come to power and rose as the financial and intellectual backers of new culture of the colonies," Wilder says.
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AMY GOODMAN: We turn to a new book 10 years in the making that looks at how some of the country’s major universities—Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown, Rutgers, Williams, the University of North Carolina, to name just a few—are drenched in sweat, and sometimes the blood, of Africans brought here as slaves. The book is called Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities. In it, MIT history professor Craig Steven Wilder reveals how the slave economy and higher education grew up together. He writes, "the American campus stood as a silent monument to slavery." Well, this history is silent no more. Professor Craig Steven Wilder joins us here in New York.
Welcome to Democracy Now!
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Thank you very much.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about America’s most elite universities. What relation do they have to slavery?
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: I think there are multiple relationships. The first and probably most poignant, most provocative, is the relationship to the slave trade itself. In the middle of the 18th century, from 1746 to 1769—fewer than 25 years, less than a quarter century—the number of colleges in the British colonies triples from three to nine. The original three were Harvard, Yale and William & Mary, and all of a sudden there were nine by 1769. And it triples in that 25-year period. That 25-year period actually coincides with the height of the slave trade. It’s precisely the rise and the elaboration of the Atlantic economy, based on the African slave trade, that allows for this sort of fantastic articulation of new growth of the institutional infrastructure of the colonies.
AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk specifically about particular universities.
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Sure.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, you are—you do look at some universities in the South—
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Mm-hmm.
AMY GOODMAN: —but also in the Deep North.
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Harvard.
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: It’s a very Northern story, actually. You know, when you think about the colonial world, until the American Revolution, there’s actually only one college in the South: William & Mary. There are a couple of other attempts, but they fail. The other eight colleges are all Northern schools. And they’re actually located in key sites, for the most part, of the merchant economy and where the slave traders had sort of come to power and rose as the sort of financial and intellectual backers of the new culture of the colonies.
AMY GOODMAN: So talk about Harvard.
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Sure. Harvard, actually, from its very beginnings in 1636, the college, by 1638, actually has an enslaved man living on campus, who’s referred to as "the Moor." And—
AMY GOODMAN: The Moor.
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: The Moor. And that actually is directly related to two slave trades. I imagine it’s how he gets to Cambridge. One is right after the Pequot War, the war in which the Puritans defeat the Indians of southern Connecticut. There’s a Pequot slave trade into the West Indies. The captive Pequot are actually sold into the West Indies. That ship actually returns with enslaved Africans. And it’s right after that moment that the Moor appears on campus and becomes part of the sort of legend of early Harvard.
AMY GOODMAN: Toward the end of the book, you include a photograph that shows five men who served as president—
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —of Harvard University from 1829 to 1862. Talk about their significance and relation to slavery.
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: What I wanted to show in that final chapter, that final epilogue, was the ways in which slavery, even after the end of slavery in the Northeast, even after the Northern colonies and Northern states had actually moved toward emancipation and finished their emancipation processes, they continued to have economic ties to the South and the West Indies. And so, if you—one of the ways you can trace that is just by looking at who became the president of these universities, who the presidents were. And the presidents were virtually always the sons or the sons-in-law of merchant traders, people who were West India suppliers. And so, after the slave trade ends and after slavery ends in the Northern states, one of the businesses that continues is supplying the South and the West Indies with everything—all the provisions that they needed to run the plantations.
AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to look at this picture again.
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Sure.
AMY GOODMAN: You’ve got Quincy. You’ve got Everett. You’ve got—what is it? Sparks?
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Yeah, Sparks.
AMY GOODMAN: Mather.
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Jared Sparks.
AMY GOODMAN: And Felton.
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Mm-hmm.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain. For example, Mather. In fact, at Harvard University, there is a house named after Mather.
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Yeah, the Mathers actually go back a long way. And so, you know—and they actually are part of the colonial story of slavery, too. Increase Mather, of the second generation, is actually a president of Harvard, and he uses his slave, which was a person given to him by his parish—he uses his slave to actually run the business of the college in the colonial period. This slave runs errands between the various trustees. And he writes in his diary that he sent his Negro to do various bits of work for the college.
And if you think about, you know, Edward Everett, Jared Sparks, one of the ways that their influence—that they had managed to achieve the kind of influence that they did—Sparks, for instance, becomes rather famous, actually, for his writings about early American history. He becomes something of a really quite polished American historian, but that was actually a way of also creating ties with the South, intellectual relationships with the South. And so, his writings as a historian also allowed him to create intellectual connections to these very important regions, and regions that remained important in the financing of higher education long after slavery ends in the Northeast.
AMY GOODMAN: What about Yale University?
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Yale actually is a very similar story. Yeah, in 1701, when the original founders were actually meeting to establish what was then the Collegiate School, they—as one of their chroniclers puts it, they come from the various towns to meet up, and they’re followed by their menservants, or their slaves. The slave—the enslaved people are actually at the founding of the institution. And once it’s established, like most of the 18th century colleges—and especially by the 18th century as the slave trade peaks—the new business of higher education, the financial model for a successful college, requires in fact tapping into these new sources of wealth in the Americas. And that means the slave trade in the plantations of the South and the West Indies.
AMY GOODMAN: Did anyone at these universities—and I think you talk about at Yale—say no to slaves?
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Yes, yes. Yeah, there’s—at every moment that there’s a push toward slavery, there’s also anti-slavery. There’s an anti-slavery tradition actually emerging from the 17th century right through the 18th century. And much of it, because it’s an intellectual movement, because it’s a moral and religious movement, is actually housed on campus. And so you have this tension on campus. And I try and actually point that out at various times in the book.
One of the examples that I use, actually, relates to the image that you showed of the presidents, and particularly Quincy. Under Quincy’s administration, Charles Follen, the German historian—I’m sorry, the German professor at Harvard, who was a rebel of the—in Germany and who was chased out for his radicalism, comes to the United States, gets appointed professor of German at Harvard, and then is immediately attracted to the abolitionist movement. Follen is actually punished for that decision. He eventually loses his professorship. And when you trace the origins of the professorship, the funding had largely come from families with ties to the slave trade and slavery.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, that’s very interesting. What you point out at places like Harvard is that a lot of the endowments for the professor chairs—
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —come from the slave trade.
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Yeah. The first—actually, the very first endowed professorship at Yale, the Livingston professor of divinity, actually comes from the Livingston family of New York and New Jersey. And it’s the second generation, Philip Livingston, gives it in, basically, recognition of the fine education that his sons had received at Yale. And Livingston is one of the—the Livingstons are one of the larger slave-trading families out of New York City, the rivals for places like Newport, Rhode Island, and Providence, which dominates the North American trade. Certainly the Philadelphians and the New Yorkers were trying to catch up.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to talk about the DeWolf family, the largest slave-trading family, in a moment.
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Sure, sure. Yeah, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to be joined by one of the DeWolfs, Katrina Browne, and how she traced the trade in her family. But I want to ask you about Princeton University.
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Sure. Princeton is, to me, one of the more interesting of the schools. You know, they’re all distinct in some ways. But, you know, founded in 1746 and founded in a religiously radical tradition, evangelical tradition, Princeton finds itself struggling in its early years. In 1768, it had just had a sequence of short presidencies, two deaths—including two deaths of the presidents. And they recruit the Scottish minister John Witherspoon. One of the Princeton alumni—then the College of New Jersey—is actually studying medicine in Edinburgh, and he’s acting on behalf of his college to recruit John Witherspoon of Paisley to come to New Jersey. Witherspoon eventually makes the decision—he and his wife Elizabeth—to cross the Atlantic and go to New Jersey.
And one of the things I argue in the book is that: What would make this successful minister from Scotland attracted to a relatively unsuccessful college in a colony that’s actually not in fact a powerhouse in North America? And the answer is really the extraordinary network, Scottish network in the Americas, the ways in which the Witherspoon family, in particular, had reached out across the Americas and branched out across the Americas and provided Witherspoon a way of actually securing and stabilizing the College of New Jersey by exploiting these family and national connections, the Scottish diaspora, in the Americas. And it included, particularly, Scots who were moving into the Carolinas and Virginia, into the backcountry of Virginia and the Carolinas, and into the Caribbean.
AMY GOODMAN: And what did that have to do with slavery?
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: That means that actually what he ends up doing is sort of pointing and looking south for new sources of students and money, as soon as he arrives. In fact, shortly after he arrives, he publishes a missive to the West Indies, in which he promises the planters of the British West Indies that their sons would be better off in Princeton, New Jersey, which is intimate and close enough where the faculty take very good care of the boys, rather than sending them to England, where young men from the West Indies are known to be wealthy and get preyed upon by people of loose morals and broad ambitions. So sending them to Princeton actually would be better for them, but it would also be better for Princeton. And he makes this—he’s not the only one to do this. I should point out that if you look at those colleges that are founded in the mid-18th century, they all send ambassadors to the West Indies in search of money and students.
AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about Betsey Stockton—
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —who was enslaved by an early 19th century president of Princeton.
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Yeah, yeah. Stockton is actually the—was given to the wife of that president as a gift when she was a younger woman, and then the—through marriage, actually comes into the household of Ashbel Green, the president of Princeton—who ends up president of Princeton. He eventually emancipates her. He also actually establishes—and this is that tension between slavery and antislavery—he establishes a ministry with many of the people in the black community surrounding Princeton. He emancipates her. She lives in the president’s house and continues to work there, and actually becomes quite famous as a biblical scholar. She becomes quite good at biblical geography, and noted—
AMY GOODMAN: Spending most of her time in his library.
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Yeah, yeah—and noted for her geographic skills, her biblical geographic skills. She then eventually becomes a schoolteacher in New York and heads off to a mission to the Sandwich Islands, to Hawaii, where her skill with language and religion become actually critical to the success of the mission. And so, you have this person who is born enslaved and lives as an enslaved person on a college campus, and then who leads this extraordinary life afterwards.
AMY GOODMAN: You also talk about race science.
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Mm-hmm, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: You talk about the search for cadavers for scientific research at these universities.
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Yeah, right, yeah. And one of the things I wanted to do with the book was to try and explain both how slavery and the slave trade provided the foundations for the rise of the—of higher education in North America, but I also wanted to explain the role that colleges played in perpetuating slavery and the slave trade. And that’s where you get to race science. That’s where race science becomes critical, because it’s precisely on campus that the ideas that come to defend slavery in the 19th century get refined. They get their intellectual legitimacy on campus. They get their scientific sort of veneer on campus. And they get their moral credentialing on campus.
And so, I wanted to trace that process. And one of the ugliest aspects of that is the use of marginalized people in the Americas, in the United States—its enslaved black people, often Native Americans, and sometimes the Irish—for experimentation, the bodies that were accessible as science rose. And science is rising in the 18th century in part by turning dissection and anatomy into the new medical arts. But that requires bodies. It requires people. In the British islands, that means you’re often exploiting Ireland. In North America, it means you’re often taking advantage of people who have no legal and moral protection upon their bodies: the enslaved.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you give an example?
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Sure. Actually, at Dartmouth, the medical college—it would be unfair to say that the medical college begins with this moment, but the teaching of science in Hanover begins when the physician to the president, the founder of Dartmouth, Eleazar Wheelock, drags the body of an enslaved black man, who is deceased, named Cato, to the back of his house and boils that body in an enormous pot to free up the skeleton, to wire it up for instruction. That act is not unusual. In fact, when the first medical colleges are established in North America in the 1760s—the first is at the College of Philadelphia, which is now the University of Pennylvania, and the second is at King’s College, which is now Columbia—when those institutions are founded, actually, they’re founded in part—part of what allows them to be established is access to corpses, access to people to experiment upon. And, in fact, it’s precisely the enslaved, the unfree and the marginalized who get forcibly volunteered for that role.
AMY GOODMAN: Craig Steven Wilder, I want to ask you to stay with us. We’re going to trace one family’s roots—
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Sure, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —to the largest slave-holding family in America, and I’d like you to comment on it and how it links to the universities of this country.
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Sure.
AMY GOODMAN: Craig Steven Wilder is the author of Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities . Oh, you can go to our website to read the book’sprologue at democracynow.org. Professor Wilder teaches American history at MIT. He also taught at Williams College, as well as Dartmouth. Stay with us.
Click here to watch part 2 of this interview.