The regret expressed by several top universities in recent years for their connection to slavery has led to a number of institutions probing to uncover how deeply linked they were to the slave enterprise.
Schools like Harvard and Brown have acknowledged that they benefited from slavery. Many others have acknowledged buying or renting out slaves, using slave labor for construction and accepting funds for endowed chairs or start-up seed money from wealthy merchants who were profiting from the slave trade.
These revelations and a growing body of research suggest that, prior to the Civil War, universities with no ties to slavery were the exception and not the norm. The academia connection to slavery has gained more attention recently with the publication of Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America's Universities, by Dr. Craig Steven Wilder, a professor of history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"People are surprised at the role that slavery played in the rise of these cherished institutions," says Wilder, adding that many people don't realize the central role slavery had to the economy of the colonies. He says 20th century historian "Samuel Eliot Morison admits in one of his books that it's the West Indian trade and the slave trade that saved the New England economy."
Wilder says that six of the nation's nine oldest universities--Princeton, Rutgers, Dartmouth, Columbia, Brown and the University of Pennsylvania--were founded between 1746 and 1769, the period "when the African slave trade [reached] its peak." He notes that all of these institutions were founded with some funding by slave merchants, who were also the biggest philanthropists of their day, providing seed money for community institutions, including hospitals, libraries and colleges.
"You have universities--particularly old and established universities in the northeast--that owe their endowment to the slave trade," says Dr. Joshua Rothman, a professor of history at the University of Alabama whose research interests include race and slavery. "If you go deep enough you will find money linked to the slave trade. When you get into universities founded in the South [in] the 18th and first half of [the] 19th century, you will find multiple issues. State money comes from slavery. If you have private money it comes from people making a fortune from slavery."
Many historians note that slavery was so deeply embedded into the fabric of society that it would be hard to find an industry or institution in those days that was not tainted by it.
Dr. James Campbell, head of the commission at Brown that studied that university's connection to slavery, says most industries, including banks, insurance companies and railroads, benefited from slavery or used slave labor. He notes that at least one newspaper, the Hartford Courant, has acknowledged ties to slavery. According to a series published in the newspaper in 2002, the Courant ran slavery advertisements for nearly 60 years.
"If your institution has roots going back to the 17th, 18th or early 19th century, it's hard to believe that it didn't have an entanglement with slavery," says Campbell, now the Edgar E. Robinson Professor in United States History at Stanford.
Finding the slave connection
Yale inadvertently got the ball rolling on the connection between higher education institutions and slavery in 2001 when a team of graduate students, working on behalf of some disgruntled unions, published a report titled "Yale and Slavery." Among other things, the report alleged that nine of Yale's 12 residential colleges were named for slave owners.
"It was designed to embarrass the university," says Campbell." They discovered some interesting facts and they also made some mistakes." Some scholars criticized the study, saying it lacked historical context. …