Ebony and Ivy: Craig Steven Wilder Explores Higher Education's Tie to Slavery

Volume 5, Issue 1, Winter 2015

By Robert Ast

Craig Steven Wilder did not set out to write a bombshell. His latest book began with the attempt to answer a relatively discrete question: how were black abolitionists able to enter the professions in the mid-19th century, when they had largely been excluded from higher education?

The scope of the project soon expanded, however, as his initial inquiry morphed into something larger and broader. “There wasn’t a strict racial barrier to college access,” says Wilder, M.A. ’89, M.Phil. ’93, Ph.D. ’94, History, and currently head of the history faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Native Americans had been students at colleges for 175 years. Colleges played a role in deciding who was educable and who wasn’t, and in maintaining the justifications and arguments for slavery and the dispossession of native peoples.”

The final result, Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, is a far-reaching account, spanning centuries, of the various ways in which American colleges and universities, including Columbia, relied upon and benefited from the institution of slavery. Slave merchants provided capital to fledgling colleges, while colleges adopted curricular changes to make their graduates more suitable for employment in professions related to the slave trade, and helped to enshrine discrimination by conferring an academic patina on racist ideology.

The book’s publication in fall 2013 addressed a significant lacuna in the historiography of American colleges and universities. While the issue of access to higher education is amply represented  in academic discourse, from investigations into attempts to limit the matriculation of Jewish students at Ivy League colleges to considerations of affirmative action, the ties between colleges and the slave trade—in particular, the notion that slavery played a foundational role in the development of the American higher education system—have gone largely unexplored.

“Most people recognize that there was this troubled relationship between race and higher education that goes back before the Civil War, but this is the first book I know of that explores it,” according to Kenneth T. Jackson, Jacques Barzun Professor in History and the Social Sciences and Wilder’s dissertation adviser.

Although some scholars have explored the relationship between slavery and higher education, their efforts—such as, most notably, the Brown University inquiry into the school’s connections to the slave trade, spearheaded by then-President  Ruth Simmons—have often been institution specific, without the comprehensive overview that Wilder provides in Ebony and Ivy. In return, the lectures  that Wilder has given to accompany the publication of the book have provided a forum to highlight initiatives that were already under way at different schools.

“After the Brown report came out in 2006, I think a lot of people expected the other Ivy League schools and their kindred institutions to do something similar,” Wilder said. “What ended up happening was more grassroots: faculty and graduate students at Harvard started doing research on the school’s relationship with slavery, led by my Columbia classmate Sven Beckert [M.A. ’89, M.Phil. ’90, Ph.D. ’95, History], and a lot of librarians and archivists started doing small projects and exhibits at their campuses. When the book came out, it helped to focus attention on things that were already happening. One of the best talks was at Clemson, which coincided with the culmination of a long- term project exploring the relationship between the college, race, and slavery. It was a chance for the president, provost, and dean to really get involved and start leading the conversation.”

While the role of slavery in the formation of America, long an untold story, has begun to be acknowledged within the mainstream American historical narrative, the depiction of slavery’s ties to elite educational institutions in the Northeast in Ebony and Ivy was often treated as a revelation; a New York Times article about the book featured the headline “Dirty Antebellum Secrets in Ivory Towers.”

“One of the reasons why we don’t associate universities with slavery is that universities write their own stories,” Wilder notes. “While we freely write stories about the founding fathers and slavery, or enslaved people building the White House, we tend not to write about enslaved people building Brown or the president of Princeton owning slaves. We’ve shaped that view of the past, however distorted it is, and so we need to have a lot of self-criticism and self-reflection.

“I discuss abolitionist movements on campus, but I don’t use the history of abolitionism as a way of releasing the emotional and moral tension of slavery. That distorts what abolitionism was: it was never an apology for slavery, but rather a description of the inhumanity of slavery that was contemporaneous with the institution of slavery, which makes the story of slavery even harder to reckon with. We  all have to wrestle with it—I have to wrestle with it as a historian, readers have to wrestle with it. It’s uncomfortable, but necessary.”

A similar sense of moral responsibility and commitment to intellectual honesty infuses Wilder’s academic life as a teacher and mentor, due in no small part to his own educational trajectory. After growing up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, Wilder attended Fordham University and then worked as a community organizer in the Bronx before attending the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

“I end up working a lot with first-generation college students, and one of the things I’ve realized is that in the past I’ve flattened out my story a bit and taken out the rough parts so that it seems more inevitable than it actually was,” Wilder says. “Going from Bed Stuy to Fordham was a big jump. My high school was a great school in a lot of ways, and a real learning experience for me, but the curriculum didn’t prepare us for college. I had been a good high school student but had to play catch-up in my classes.

“The transition to Columbia was not that difficult intellectually, but emotionally the stakes were higher. When you go to college, you commit to a school. When you go to grad school, you commit to a profession, and emotionally that was much harder. These questions about if I could succeed  as a historian were more immediate than real, but one of the things I’ve learned is that we—faculty, administrators, staff—have to be a lot more honest about how difficult those transitions can be. It  gives our students freedom to be vulnerable about where they are intellectually, personally, where their families are, and what they need from us to help them succeed.”

In fact, it was the year away from academia he spent as a community organizer that helped to solidify his decision to pursue a career as a historian.

“The central frustration of community organizing is [that] the information that communities need in order to organize effectively is often housed at colleges and universities, and there’s a barrier to accessing that information from the outside,” Wilder notes. “One of the things that made me finally commit to grad school was the goal of being an academic who talked to real people, which gives a purpose to what we do beyond ourselves and our career.

“And one of the great things about being a graduate student at Columbia was the feeling of entering a community of scholars. There was a sense that you were part of a much broader intellectual network that seemed to extend forever. I had a kind of familiarity with people I had never met, such as one of my early role models, Ira Katznelson. I didn’t actually meet him until my graduation, when he gave the Ph.D. address, but I had followed his work closely for years and envied his ability to apply his research to profound and pressing social questions.”

Wilder’s career after Columbia exemplifies his dedication to expanding access to knowledge and applying academic research to social questions, perhaps most notably via his work teaching at Eastern NY Correctional Facility in upstate New York through the Bard Prison Initiative, which allows incarcerated men and women to earn a bachelor’s degree under the auspices of Bard College. Kenneth Jackson notes, “There is not a lot of mileage in the academic world in speaking to prisoners, and Craig has given more than a little amount of time to that—when he’s committed to something, he’s committed.”

“One of the things that really attracted me is that the men and women are getting the same curriculum that they would get at Bard, and the same degree,” Wilder says. “I teach the same exact course I teach at MIT. Men and women who are released before completing their studies can go to Bard and finish, and school officials also come and do the Bard graduation in the prison. The thoroughness of that commitment, the integrity of that kind of college program, just impressed me from the very beginning. That’s the kind of thing that academics need to support—especially once we’re tenured.”

Wilder has also participated in a number of projects that engage an audience outside academe. He has served as an adviser for a number of museum exhibits, including the New-York Historical Society’s Slavery in New York. He has also consulted for, and appeared in, documentary films, such as the PBS series New York: A Documentary Film, directed by Ric Burns ’78CC, M.Phil. ’83, English and Comparative Literature, and The Central Park Five, by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon. The latter film, which describes the arrest and wrongful conviction of the “Central Park Five” in the late 1980s and early 1990s, posed a particular challenge.

“Historians joke about the security of writing about people who are long gone,” Wilder says. “The risk of working on historical periods in which you’ve been alive is that participation can distort your memory. But, in the context of the documentary and Sarah’s book [also titled The Central Park Five], one of the things they needed was for us to remember that time period—how divided the city was, how tense it was, and how separate and unique our experiences seemed even as they were intimately connected and interdependent. The chorus of memories is part of why the film has so much emotional power. It  was a difficult process of remembering a period that was also difficult in my life, but these are the kinds of experiences that made me want to become an academic.”

After spending a decade on Ebony and Ivy, Wilder is still exploring subjects for his next immersive project. In the meantime, he is returning to the initial inspiration for the book—the African American abolitionists of the 1830s and 1840s—and remains open to influence. He notes that the examination in Ebony and Ivy of the early colleges designed to educate indigenous peoples stems from his interactions with Dartmouth’s Native American Studies program as a member of the faculty, while the book’s discussion of the need for engineers to work in cotton manufacturing and sugar refineries owes a debt to his time at MIT.

“If you had asked me in 2001, I never would have told you that my next book would be on the history of higher education,” Wilder adds. “The fun of being a historian is that you get to prove yourself wrong over time and work on things you thought you had no real attraction to. When we get absolutely tired  of what we’re working on, you can wake up the next day and do something else. Wherever you teach, you have the opportunity to turn yourself into a student. At Dartmouth, I became a student of Native American Studies; at MIT, I became a student of the history of engineering, manufacturing, and industry. That’s the luxury of being an academic: you can transform yourself by walking down the hall.”