Craig Steven Wilder

Ebony and Ivy

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Ebony and Ivy Summary

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Published in 2013, Craig Steven Wilder’s Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities takes an in-depth look at how race-based mindsets and slavery were foundational in the creation, development, and intellectual status quo of universities in America. Convincingly, the book demonstrates how universities took advantage of slavery and institutionalized racism as part of their curriculum. With a combination of scholarship and keen analysis, Wilder reveals the economic, political, religious, and intellectual notions of the time that were based on white supremacy and outlines the fundamental role American universities played in supporting these ideas.

The book begins by examining how and why the first American academies became entwined with slave economies of the colonies. These universities came to the Americas as a response to European nations’ efforts to commandeer territories and keep rivals at bay. The European powers used the universities to help defend and control their possessions in the colonies, and they looked to African slavery and the slave trade to aid in funding such efforts.

In focusing on the strategical and societal functions of the first colleges in New France, New Spain, and the British American colonies, Wilder touches on the first documented case of a black person enslaved in the colonies, who was a servant to Harvard’s first students in the late 1630s. Wilder discusses the socioeconomic dynamic that caused slave traders and owners to become founders and trustees of universities in the British colonies. He states that the British American colonies’ first five colleges, established between 1636 and 1746, acted as a mere means of Christian expansionism, wielded weapons in conquest of indigenous people, and benefited from the African slave trade and slavery. The author even compares the colleges to armories.

Through his dogged investigation, Wilder produces a wealth of information about the colleges’ founders, faculty, benefactors, and students. In this world, the affluence of traders dictated the locations and fates of the colonial schools, and profits resulting from the sale of humans went on to pay for college campuses and augmented college trusts. Furthermore, college campuses upheld the demands of slaveholding students to create a social environment that enticed the sons of the wealthy. It is no coincidence, says Wilder, that the peak of the slave trade marked the very period that witnessed the greatest expansion in higher education.

Next, the book touches on ways university governors fostered their schools upon the African slave trade economy, a pursuit that was spurred by a boom in colony building. Administrators at the universities fought for devotion and backing from wealthy colonial families, and the schools’ success and survival often hinged upon the wealth of American planters and merchants. Wilder then examines the link between universities and regional slave economies. Drastic shifts in demography within the colonial world altered campus culture and the very purpose of education. In the years leading up to the American Revolution, says the author, the wealth of planters and slave traders transformed college campuses into playgrounds for affluent young men, drawing these universities deeper into the pockets of the colonial elite.

Next, the book discusses the impact of slavery on knowledge production and the intellectualism of the United States. Wilder states that the founders and officers of the colleges would use slaves to build and maintain campuses while, at the same time, increasing the wealth of the institutions.

However, says the author, the connection of slavery and colleges did not end with the presence of enslaved people on campus. American colleges actually trained personnel and helped foster the ideas that legitimized and perpetuated Native American dispossession as well as the enslavement of Africans. The slavery of the day, says Wilder, needed acceptance from scholars and cooperation from universities. Faculties seized the benefits of slavery while embracing a prediction of a future in which Native American peoples and Africans would ultimately be subjugated and destroyed.

Wilder then discusses the universities’ role in forging and spreading the deterministic view that white people would eventually become the sole inhabitants of North America. The schools stopped acting in an effort to Christianize Native peoples and, instead, became a force for eliminating the religious divisions between the colonies and Europe. This popular notion of a divine promise of a white country, in combination with the tireless grasp for land, led American colonists to unite as a single people and cast Native Americans to the side as obstacles to advancement.

Next, the author outlines the origination of race-based science in the Atlantic world. Research on race led to the political and societal rise of the university. Both in America and in Europe, universities collected and analyzed data about human differences and formed theories of race supremacy and inferiority that, to them, were biologically based. Scholars from American universities, says Wilder, played central roles in the development of racial science. Race-based science elevated the status of the universities, and the increased authority and sway of science demonstrated scholars’ efforts and capability of maintaining the societal order of slavery.

The book then discusses the ascent of the university as a particular political constituent in pre-war America. Academics’ claims of being the authorities on race led the scholars to the public arena, and their initial entrance into the national political scene came when they voiced their belief in the danger of a society with free black people. They further advocated for relocating black people to Africa. This serves to explain why academics were so overabundant in periods of identifying what were deemed to be racial threats to society.

Wilder’s book reveals that universities were far from unassuming beneficiaries of colonial slavery. Rather, the European invasion of the New World and the creation of the slave trade meant that colleges were one of the colonial institutions to determine affected people’s fates. Far from standing apart from American slavery, the academy actually stood next to the church and the state, the third pillar of a society built upon bondage.