Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America's Universities

By Ayers, Edward L. | The Journal of Southern History, February 2015 | Go to article overview

Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America's Universities


Ayers, Edward L., The Journal of Southern History


Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America's Universities. By Craig Steven Wilder. (New York and other cities: Bloomsbury Press, 2013. Pp. [viii], 423. $30.00, ISBN 978-1-59691-681-4.)

This book surprises. It focuses, for one thing, on the northeastern United States, not on the southern states where slavery was anchored. The chronological focus, with half its space devoted to the colonial period and to implications of colleges for American Indians, is also not what a reader might expect, given that most American colleges were founded in the antebellum era.

Most surprising, perhaps, the story is less about individual universities than it is about the networks that created and sustained them. Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America's Universities is a powerful bill of indictment, unrelenting and unforgiving. The evidence is clear, and Craig Steven Wilder's account is single-minded and persuasive. The book includes few extended histories of individual colleges, for they are all presented as nodes in larger systems.

None of these surprises are disappointments. In fact, the freshness of perspective is one of the several strengths of this book. Wilder, while inspired by the efforts of Brown and Yale Universities to document their complicity in the slave trade, is not content merely to point to institutionally specific episodes of evasion, forgetfulness, or hypocrisy. He is interested instead in the way that the early colleges and universities of the United States were entangled in webs of trade, science, power, and race.

Wilder's richly documented story details, in his words, how "[t]he American college trained the personnel and cultivated the ideas that accelerated and legitimated the dispossession of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans. Modern slavery required the acquiescence of scholars and the cooperation of academic institutions" (p. 10). Indeed, Wilder argues, the academy "stood beside church and state as the third pillar of a civilization built on bondage" (p. 11). Harvard College, the College of William and Mary, and Yale--the first three colleges in the British North American colonies--were "instruments of Christian expansionism, weapons for the conquest of indigenous peoples, and major beneficiaries of the African slave trade and slavery" (p. …

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