Pt. 2: Craig Steven Wilder on "Ebony & Ivy," Race, Slavery and U.S. Universities
Part two of our extended interview with MIT American history professor Craig Steven Wilder examining how many of the nation’s elite schools — including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown, Dartmouth — are drenched in the sweat, and sometimes the blood, of Africans brought to the United States as slaves. Wilder has spent the last 10 years researching his book, "Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities." [includes rush transcript]
Part two of our extended interview with MIT American history professor Craig Steven Wilder examining how many of the nation’s elite schools — including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown, Dartmouth — are drenched in the sweat, and sometimes the blood, of Africans brought to the United States as slaves. Wilder has spent the last 10 years researching his book, Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn to part two of our discussion with Craig Steven Wilder, author of a new book. It’s called Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities. It’s an astounding book.
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about where you began it. I mean, you’re a professor of American history, Professor Wilder, at MIT right now.
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: But you taught at Williams, you taught at Dartmouth.
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Mm-hmm.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about Dartmouth.
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Dartmouth, actually, it was one of the more interesting cases. I started the book when I got to Dartmouth in 2002. And as I said, you know, it was supposed to be a tiny little article on how black abolitionists became professionals. How do you become a minister, a doctor, a teacher, in a nation where you can’t go to college? And so, the African Americans who oppose slavery actually have this big push into the professions, but they actually are excluded from colleges and universities. And so, one of the things that intrigued me, and particularly because I was at Dartmouth at the time, was the fact that Native Americans had been on campus, for 200 years by then. Native American students had been on campus for 200 years. And that suggests, in fact, when you say it that way, that Native Americans were somehow privileged, which we know is wrong. And so it really requires a rethinking of the college itself, the role of the college in the colonial world.
And in many ways, I think Dartmouth was a perfect example of what I ended up arguing in the book, that we have to think of colleges as animate, as actors in the colonial world and in the creation of the nation that we know. Eleazar Wheelock, the Reverend Eleazar Wheelock, who arrives in Hanover—after he gets his charter in 1769, he arrives several months later with eight enslaved black people, including a baby. He has more slaves than he has faculty. He has more slaves than active trustees. He has more slaves—if you do an honest accounting, he probably has more slaves than he has students. And by that time, although he spent most of his life as a missionary to Native Americans—and the college is founded, and certainly its supporters believe that he’s continuing the Native American ministry—in fact, Native American students had been relegated to what was basically a grammar school. And Wheelock was in the process of building a college for white students. And like a lot of colleges that took money for Native American evangelization, a lot of that money actually ends up going to support white students and transform them into missionaries and ministers.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, explain that. I don’t think people quite understand that these universities would go out to raise money.
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: And they would raise it by saying, "We’re educating Native Americans."
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: And it wasn’t only Dartmouth.
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Particularly in the 18th century, in the decades before the American Revolution, in the 20 years before the American Revolution, the colleges launched endless appeals and campaigns to Europe, but particularly to Britain, in search of dollars. At one point in the book, I point out that they’re literally bumping into each other in London soliciting wealthy donors, and ofter under the claim that they were educating Native Americans. Samuel Johnson, the founding president of King’s College, which is now Columbia, has a great exchange which highlights this, in which he proposes educating some Indian children from the Six Nations, the Iroquois Confederacy, and sends out a loose letter about this, and then quickly withdraws the idea because it’s just too hard to do. He’s not really interested in educating Indian children, but he is interested in making that appeal. And very often the colleges are sending ambassadors to Europe, in particular, under the claim that they’ll be evangelizing Indians. That begins really in the early 17th century with the very first of the British colleges, Harvard.
AMY GOODMAN: What happened at Harvard?
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Well, the sending off appeals to England claiming to and championing the evangelization of Native Americans. In 1649, the New England Company is established, and it’s a missionary corporation, which actually becomes a model for later missionary corporations like the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. But throughout the 17th century, one of the continuing themes of Harvard—the charter has changed to include Native American education as part of the mission. The first brick building on Harvard Yard is the Indian College. And I—
AMY GOODMAN: The first building in Harvard Yard—
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: The first brick building—the first brick building is actually the Indian College. And I point out in the book that, you know, you can raise money hand over fist in Europe for Indian evangelization. And these stories of radical Christians transforming native people into religious perfectionists, into models of Christian virtue, are actually, you know, just being eaten up in Europe.
AMY GOODMAN: Why in Europe?
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Well, I think in part because there’s a real use of Native Americans in—there’s a way in which Native Americans have now captured the European mind: exotic people of a different color and kind who both perplex and intrigue Europeans. And so you get a lot of conversation about the origins of native people, where they come from, how you explain them. You know, there’s a tremendous attempt to reconcile their existence in the Americas with biblical narrative, and then to missionize them.
AMY GOODMAN: And these people, who are presidents of these universities, from Dartmouth to Harvard, are ministers.
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Yeah, they’re ministers, and they’re often missionaries.
AMY GOODMAN: And they have slaves.
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: And they often have slaves, and they’re—they’ve often been Indian missionaries. So Wheelock has spent much of his—
AMY GOODMAN: The first president of Dartmouth.
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: The first president of Dartmouth has spent much of his life as an Indian missionary. But he’s also run a side business buying and selling people for labor, so that enslaved black people have been part of his life’s work from his earliest years.
AMY GOODMAN: How did you feel about this, Craig Steven Wilder, at Dartmouth yourself teaching, doing this research?
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: It’s an—it’s awkward. You know, I think—you know, when you think about the way that Ms. Browne was talking about Traces of the Trade, this slow, uncomfortable realization that you’re part of this world with this very broad, deep, painful history is, to say the very least, awkward. It was—it also became an intellectual challenge for me: How do I tell that story? And how do I get that story to an audience and get them to understand its meaning, what it means for us today and what it meant for us then? And so, I think, in some ways, as a historian it’s probably easier to deal with that realization, because we have the tools for then wrestling with it.
AMY GOODMAN: Did they ever try to get you to stop telling this story?
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: No, no. Actually they didn’t. And I have to give everyone a lot of credit. You know, one of the great things that happened is, you know, early in my career at Dartmouth I gave a talk on a part of the book that—what’s now a small part of the book, you know, and the president of Dartmouth at the time, Jim Wright, was sitting in the front row of that talk and gave me a great handshake and a hug afterwards.
And, you know, I often tell the story of going into archives to do the research for this book, from the Carolinas and Virginia to eastern Canada and Scotland. And when I first started, I was somewhat cautious about what I would say, you know, when they ask you on those forms, "What are you studying?" And so, I would say vague things like 18th century education or colonial schools. And as the archivists and librarians sort of—as I got to know them and they found out more about what I was doing, one of the really wonderful things that happened is not only were they quite supportive of the project, but they often in fact introduced me to and brought me material that I would never have known was in the archives. Sometimes they sort of slipped it to me across the table as if they were doing something wrong, but they—
AMY GOODMAN: What were—
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: —were always supportive. They were always warm.
AMY GOODMAN: What were some of your great discoveries there?
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: I think, you know, the presidents who owned slaves, what happened to those enslaved people during their lives. You know, at William & Mary, one of the early founders actually ends up killing a child.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain that story.
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: He orders—
AMY GOODMAN: Who was it?
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: It’s Reverend Grey, and he orders a child to be beaten. And the child is beaten so severely that he later dies. The—his parish actually basically pays him in tobacco to leave. And that was one of the sort of really quite difficult moments in writing the book, because there’s a way to tell that story, but it’s a difficult story to tell. And there’s something to be known about the nature of colleges in there, the nature of the colonial world in there.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean there’s a way to tell that story?
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Well, I think there’s a way to tell that, meaning that, you know, the—part of my job as a historian is to make that story available to people, to explain it, and to let them understand how that moment comes into being. And it’s one of many in which children actually play a role in the book, because one of the patterns that I had noticed as I was doing this research over years was just the number of children who were owned by college presidents required some kind of explanation, when you really think about how many of them had made specific requests for children.
AMY GOODMAN: Go through them.
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: And so I end up—well, let—you know, let’s think of some. Ezra Stiles, who’s the president of Yale during the American Revolution, earlier, as a Newport minister, purchases a child, a boy, named Newport, in Newport, Rhode Island. He’s a Rhode Island minister before he becomes president of Yale. And then he emancipates Newport on the day before he becomes president of Yale, before he enters the president’s house. Jonathan Edwards purchases a girl—I believe he names her Venus—in Rhode Island.
AMY GOODMAN: And Jonathan Edwards is?
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Is—becomes the president of Princeton. He is earlier an Indian missionary in Connecticut, a rather fantastic career as an evangelical minister and one of the leading evangelicals of the 18th century, probably most famous for the founding evangelical sermon, as it’s often called, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." Edwards purchases a girl. The—at Dartmouth, Wheelock owns children. The trustees at Harvard are actually demanding children. Increase Mather gets a boy when he’s president of Harvard.
And I needed to explain this phenomenon, and so one of the things I looked at was I really tried to examine the history around that decision-making process. And in the book, I point out that it has a lot to do with the rising fear of slave revolts in the 18th century colonies and the belief that children would be more easily socialized into slavery and less likely to revolt. And so you end up with these extraordinarily descriptive requests for slaves, the absentee planters of the West Indies who are living up in Massachusetts writing back to their overseers with very exact descriptions of the age, gender and type of personality that they want in a slave. You know, one writes that "I lost my boy," meaning he died, "and I want to replace him with another." And therefore you also end up with a slave trade, an Atlantic slave trade, which deals in human beings, but about 20 percent of whom are children.
And I explore one of those voyages in the book, in which dozens of children, some as young as two and three years old, are being held captive on board and die during the journey. And that’s a Livingston investment, the Livingstons who go on to become the funders of the first professorship, endowed professorship, at Yale, founders of Columbia and trustees at Princeton and at Rutgers.
AMY GOODMAN: Rutgers, you haven’t talked much about.
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Yeah, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Tell us a little about Rutgers.
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: You know, the—it’s a fascinating institution for a lot of reasons. And the original Queen’s College, which is a Dutch Reformed college, the Dutch colonists are establishing their own institution, and it’s, as we all know, really quite close to the College of New Jersey, Princeton, and Princeton is originally founded in the eastern part of the state over by Newark and then drifts over, and the governor, Governor Belcher, actually helps it eventually settle in Princeton, New Jersey. And—but, in fact, actually, one of the things that happened is there’s a lot of pressure from the College of New Jersey, from Princeton, for the Queen’s College, Rutgers, to actually fold in. But, in fact, the denominational allegiances are too strong for that, so the Presbyterians remain at New Jersey, Princeton, and the Dutch Reformed at Rutgers.
One of their earliest presidents, [Jacob] Hardenbergh, the Reverend Hardenbergh at Queen’s College, manages to purchase slaves despite the fact that the college is doing quite poorly. You know, Queen’s is so financially strapped that it closes multiple times in its early history, and for long periods. But on the eve of one of its first closures, when it just has to shut down and stop operations, Reverend Hardenbergh manages to buy a second slave for his household. And what does that tell us about colleges in the 18th century? One of the things that it should remind us is that colleges survived on the margins in the 18th century. You know, they were constantly seeking sources of funding. And the most obvious and immediate sources of funding were the rising wealthy traders of the big port cities, dominated by the slave traders, and then the planters of the South and the West Indies who had both cash and children but very few schools. As one historian of the British West Indies puts it very nicely, the British West Indies actually didn’t need colleges because of mainland North America. And there are very few institutions of higher education, or even secondary education, established in the West Indies during the colonial period, because those planters could sent their sons to Europe or to North America, the mainland.
AMY GOODMAN: And how does the Civil War play into this? Because you have all these Northerners who owned slaves, but they not only owned slaves, they run institutions that justify slavery.
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Sure.
AMY GOODMAN: It really challenges the whole notion of the Civil War—the North against, the South for, and so you fight over the evil of slavery.
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: And I argue in the book that one of the things that Northerners contribute to the—Northern intellectuals contribute in the decades before the war is the attempt to establish a common ground between the North and South, an intellectual solution to the crisis over slavery as that crisis boils up. And they actually manage to claim a new public position in this role. I argue in the book that actually what allows the college to become—the university to become what we know today, an independent, influential actor in public affairs, rather than an offshoot of churches, which is what they are in the colonial period, right—what allows them to break free of the church and establish themselves and their own prestige in the public arena is the ability to articulate a new vision of the United States, a new future for the United States. But it’s premised on racial science. It’s premised upon a claim that academics, intellectuals, can make a better, more informed, truer argument about the future of the nation and the question of slavery. And they use race science to make that claim. And so, in the final chapter of the book, I look at the overrepresentation of academics, of college professors and college presidents, in racial cleansing movements.
AMY GOODMAN: Like?
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Like the American Colonization Society, which is established in 1817, originally with the aim of removing free black people from the United States to some place outside of North America. In 1822, the Liberia colony is established and named.
AMY GOODMAN: You mean the country in Africa, Liberia—
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Right, Liberia.
AMY GOODMAN: —where—
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Where free black people are to be transported to. And they’re also overrepresented in the debates about Indian removal in the South. And they’re overrepresented, I point out in the book, in debates about and the process of establishing missions to convert Jews living in the United States or fund their removal from the United States. And when you put it all together, what you end up with is this extraordinary vision of the United States as a white Christian society, racially cleansed and racially purified. But what that actually means is race becomes the common ground between North and South. Academics, and Northern academics in particular, begin to articulate a vision for the future of the United States as a racially purified society, where slavery could continue to exist as long as it was contained and as long as it served the interest of the white South. But the goal of the nation, the future of the nation, the vision of the nation, would be a white Christian society.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Wilder, you mention taking free black people and moving them elsewhere, either to Africa or here in this country. There is a film that has just opened called 12 Years a Slave about a free black man in—in New York who is kidnapped and sent south, where he remains a slave for 12 years. I just wanted to play a trailer of that film.
SOLOMON NORTHUP: [played by Chiwetel Ejiofor] I was born a free man, lived with my family in New York—
Be good for your mother.
—until the day I was deceived—
UNIDENTIFIED: To Solomon.
SOLOMON NORTHUP: —kidnapped, sold into slavery.
*Well, boy, how you feel now?
SOLOMON NORTHUP: My name is Solomon Northup. I’m a free man. And you have no right whatsoever to detain me.
FREEMAN: [played by Paul Giamatti] You’re no free man. You’re nothing but a Georgia runaway.
EDWIN EPPS: [played by Michael Fassbender] And that servant that don’t obey his lord shall be beaten with many strikes. That’s scripture.
BASS: [played by Brad Pitt] The condition of your laborers, it’s all wrong.
EDWIN EPPS: They’re my property.
BASS: You say that with pride.
EDWIN EPPS: I say it as fact.
Speak! Man does how he pleases with his property.
You come here.
SOLOMON NORTHUP: Mr. Epps, I—
EDWIN EPPS: I said come here!
SOLOMON NORTHUP: Days ago, I was with my family, in my home. Now you tell me all is lost.
CLEMENS: [played by Chris Chalk] If you want to survive, do and say as little as possible.
SOLOMON NORTHUP: Well, I don’t want to survive. I want to live.
AMY GOODMAN: A part of the trailer of 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen, another Steve McQueen, black British director, a remarkable film. Professor Craig Steven Wilder, this was a black man, free in New York, who was brought down to the South, kidnapped.
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: And you have, yeah, this—in this period, an extraordinary, as many scholars have written about, cooperation between the institutional and political infrastructure of New York and the Northern states and the slave economies and slave societies of the South—you know, extraordinarily sympathetic courts, local policing agencies that are aggressively anti-black and pro-slavery in their mindset and outlook—and then what I would describe as a moral and intellectual culture that is searching for defenses of slavery and intellectual and moral compromise between the interests of the North and the interests of the South, which often means, in fact, exposing black people.
AMY GOODMAN: One image you have in the book is from 1826. It’s a flier, and it’s Washington College, now Washington and Lee, advertising, quote, "Negroes For Hire." It says, "Twenty Likely Negroes belonging to WASHINGTON COLLEGE, consisting of Men, Women, Boys and Girls, many of them very valuable," will be hired out for the year.
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: This is one of the institutions—and there are many of them—that owned slaves, owned slaves and used their labor to run the campus, to take care of the faculty and the students, and then in—as the seasonal demand for enslaved people changed, further profited off of them by leasing them out and leasing out extra laborers. We can think about this in a number of ways. Washington and Lee, William & Mary in Virginia, in a single year at one point in its early history, purchased 17 people for the campus. The University of North Carolina—and then in the North, you have something similar. Eleazar Wheelock, the founder of Dartmouth, as I said, you know, shows up with eight enslaved people, and so that enslaved people are the—in some ways, the majority population on the rough early campus of Dartmouth College.
And for a lot of people doing this kind of work, studying the relationship between colleges and universities, I think there’s been this look for the sort of smoking gun. And the smoking gun is always—it seems to me to be, what they’re looking for is whether or not the institution owned slaves. Well, lots of them do. But when their presidents do, they effectively do. And when the—when the professors own slaves, the institution effectively owns slaves.
AMY GOODMAN: And the students?
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: And the students bring slaves to campus. You know, George Washington’s son, Jacky Custis, his stepson, Washington nixes the idea of sending him to William & Mary because—
AMY GOODMAN: Washington himself didn’t go to college.
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Yeah, right, he didn’t go to college. And General Washington doesn’t want to send Jacky to William & Mary because Jacky already has bad habits, and he thinks his habits will get worse among the sons of the elite planters in Virginia. And so, he brings him up to New York and enrolls him at King’s College, what’s now Columbia. And Columbia is glad to have him, in part because this creates another entrance to the wealthy planters of the South and a new way of making new ties with a new group of students and potential donors and enrollments. But what’s fascinating is that, you know, Washington shows up in New York with his stepson and his stepson’s slave Joe. Joe actually also comes to campus. And the president of Columbia at the time, Myles Cooper, outfits Jacky with a suite of rooms that then he has—that Jacky has painted and readied for himself, and Joe is basically occupying what’s basically a large closet in one of the rooms.
That’s not unusual. You know, at William & Mary, probably about 10 percent of the students in the 1760s brought slaves with them to campus. And there are examples—you know, there are other examples people are actually looking at right now, other scholars, of these same phenomena, North and South.
AMY GOODMAN: You are a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Massachusetts, in Cambridge. What’s MIT’s history?
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: MIT is actually—you know, for me, there’s a fascinating group of schools that are founded in the 19th century, the technical and engineering colleges. And we really begin founding them probably in the 1820s, and there’s a—the number increases by the 1840s and 1850s.
But one of the interesting things that happens at MIT is the founder, William Barton Rogers, gets his education in Virginia. His father is actually a professor of chemistry at William & Mary. And they move into Brafferton Hall. And why that’s important is that Brafferton Hall, if you’ve ever been to William & Mary, the famous building is the Wren Building right at the sort of center of the campus. On one side of it is the president’s house, and there’s a building that mirrors it on the other side, Brafferton Hall, which is the original Indian College. That was where the Native Americans were educated in the late part of the 17th century and much of the 18th century. By the time William Barton Rogers gets there, the Native Americans are gone, and Brafferton is being used to house his family, and particularly his father. Brafferton has its own assignment of slaves. There are rules set out for the slaves of Brafferton Hall.
And so, William Barton Rogers gets his education at William & Mary, comes of age at William & Mary, and then replaces his father on the faculty at William & Mary, has a long career at the University of Virginia, where he’s dean of the faculty, and eventually leaves in the 1850s for Massachusetts, where he has an idea of establishing a technical school, an engineering school. And part of the reason why these schools are being established in this period is the great cotton manufacturers. You know, the slave-grown cotton of the South is transported to the North, and the cotton textile manufacturers need skilled engineers to help build these manufacturing towns. And it’s the dearth of skilled engineers that leads them to begin throwing money at places like the Lawrence School of Engineering at Harvard and MIT, where, you know, one of the members of one of the great cotton-manufacturing families is actually William Barton Rogers’—basically his vice president at the founding of the institution.
AMY GOODMAN: Two days after the issuance of the school’s charter at MIT, the Civil War breaks out?
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Mm-hmm, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: How does that fit in?
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Well, I think it fits in a lot of ways, actually. You know, the—in many ways, I—at the end of the book, what I’m looking at is sort of the continued relationship between Northern colleges and universities—largely Northern colleges and universities—and slavery, the economies of slavery. And the war is both a crisis for the nation, but it’s also a crisis on campus, long before it breaks out. There is a—there are deep divisions in the North about the relationship between the future of the Northern states and in relation to slavery. Those are divisions that actually lead to an extraordinary transformation in the United States. In the South at the University of North Carolina and at many Southern schools in the early part of the 19th century, slavery was openly debated, in the fraternity houses and—you know, at North Carolina, an anti-slavery speaker is invited to give the graduation speech, and the trustees then publish it and keep it in circulation for years. What happens after the—
AMY GOODMAN: And yet, the University of North Carolina—talk about its history.
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Right. And, you know, it’s founded by slave owners and planters. Its largest land donations are actually coming from planters. The, you know—
AMY GOODMAN: Meaning?
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: —enslaved people are actually being used to build the college. There’s a sort of fantastic Masonic ceremony at the—at their stone laying, the first stone laying at the school.
AMY GOODMAN: And when you say "planters," you mean plantation owners, slave owners.
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Yeah, plantation owners and slave owners, right. And they—you know, and once the fantastic Masonic ceremony is over, all the regalia and paraphernalia is gone, and the slaves are brought in to built the school—to build the school, much like at the University of Virginia, where enslaved people were raising the buildings of Thomas Jefferson’s great intellectual monument.
And so, part of what I wanted to look at was that transformation, what happened in these schools to make slavery a question that couldn’t be debated on Southern campuses, and to make it increasingly difficult to debate on Northern campuses. You know, I point out in the book that in 1835 at Amherst in Massachusetts, you know, at the commencement ceremonies, a student from Tennessee takes a club and begins bludgeoning a student from New Hampshire over the question of slavery. You know, this is not a division that’s purely North-South. Southerners were a major presence on Northern campuses, and they had been for, you know, two centuries by that time.
AMY GOODMAN: What about a school like Oberlin, which is known as one of the stops on the Underground Railroad?
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Right, right. There’s—you know, one of the things that’s happening is there’s an attempt to institutionalize anti-slavery from the 1830s on. And you can see this in a number of places. The institutionalization of anti-slavery comes in things like The Liberator, Garrison’s Liberator, black newspapers like Freedom’s Journal in 1827. But it’s also in the attempt to build schools. Abolitionists, black and white, had actually worked together from as early as 1831 to try and build an anti-slavery college. The original idea was actually to build a college for black Americans, since they were excluded from all these other schools. And Arthur Tappan, the wealthy New York merchant and Connecticut resident, actually helps Garrison and a group of black abolitionists from New York City begin to implement a plan to build the first black college in 1831 in New Haven, Connecticut. It was supposed to be right near Yale. Tappan went as far as to purchase the land for the school. The white abolitionists had promised $10,000, and the black abolitionists were going to match the $10,000. They set up a regulatory body for the school, in which the black abolitionists would be the majority of the trustees, but there would be full participation from everyone.
And what happens is there’s a conspiracy against the school. And I argue in a different piece that the conspiracy is actually led by the president of Yale, Yale’s alumni and trustees, because they fear competing with this new abolitionist school for funds from the extraordinarily generous evangelical donors, who are the major supporters of Yale and, in fact, fully invested in this new black institution. And Tappan is the perfect example. At the time that this is happening, Tappan is Yale’s largest and most generous living donor. But his attention has now shifted to this new black institution. And so, the first black college is delayed by a good quarter of a century because of that event.
AMY GOODMAN: And it never gets established.
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: It never gets built. It never gets built, right.
AMY GOODMAN: And instead, what happened?
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Instead, the money that was being raised is—it continues to get raised. And the white and black abolitionists return to the National Negro Conventions, these conventions that begin—black abolitionist conventions that begin getting held in the early 1830s. They return and ask for permission to look for a new site for a school.
They then actually fall upon, in part because it’s happened in Garrison, Prudence Crandall’s school in Canterbury, Connecticut, a young white woman who had turned toward abolitionism by reading Garrison’s Liberator and who had admitted a black girl to her school and then got threatened by the townspeople that if she didn’t remove her, they would ruin her school and then ruin her family’s business. The abolitionists begin to throw their support behind Crandall. And as the—if you remember the story, what happens to Crandall is she’s actually put on trial. Connecticut passes a legislative act to make it illegal to educate black people from outside the state. She’s tried three times. She’s convicted once. That conviction is then overturned. But during that process, while that’s happening, the townspeople then break—a mob breaks into her house, destroys the house and the school.
After that, the abolitionists shift their attention to Noyes Academy, a new school up in New Hampshire, in Canaan, New Hampshire, which is right next to Hanover, where Dartmouth is. And in 1834, the end of 1834, that school opens, and it’s open to students of all races and both genders. About eight months later, a mob of 300 people bringing dozens and dozens of ox and horses, chains and rope, dress the building in chains and rope, and drag it off of its foundations, drag it a half mile through town and destroy the building, and then fire guns and cannon at the houses where white abolitionists had actually been boarding black students. In the cover of night, the black students are taken out by friendly townspeople and the abolitionists. And the experiment at establishing, institutionalizing abolitionism by establishing an institution for the higher education of black people comes to basically a violent end at that moment. After that, the only place you really see the conversation being taken seriously is in the continued meetings of the National Negro Conventions.
AMY GOODMAN: Where do the historically black colleges fit into this?
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: They begin to appear in the 1850s. And the—like many colleges in the, you know, colonial, early national, pre-Civil War America, the distinction between a high school and a college is often hard to find in this period. And so, the—and so, therefore, one of the things that abolitionists, black and white, had played with was a kind of advanced high school that could mature into a college. And that was in fact the path that a lot of colleges took. Even ones that we know today as elite institutions actually began much more like high schools than like colleges.
And so, within the National Negro Conventions, you have this sort of continued push for that kind of higher education. But the violence of the early 1830s largely destroys the campaign. By the 1850s, African-American churches and white missionary societies begin to re-establish institutions for higher education, and those mature into the first black colleges that we know today.
AMY GOODMAN: And Oberlin College?
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Oberlin actually is part of this radical thrust. And, you know, it’s the radical Connecticut residents, the Connecticut—the old Connecticut residents who—
AMY GOODMAN: Like Tappan?
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Yeah—who move west. Tappan becomes, in fact, a major donor and sponsor of the new institution. They establish in fact a—what’s basically a secondary school that has a number of black students in it, in the decades before the war. And, you know, Beriah Green’s academy in—Oneida Academy in New York, similarly a radical institution that actually has black students in it. Gerrit Smith, the abolitionist, runs a advanced high school, very small, on his property in—I think that’s Whitesboro or Peterboro, New York, upstate New York.
And so, there are these attempts, but what you basically have—and most of these attempts are actually pretty short-lived, and they tend to be either out west—Ohio at that time—or in fairly rural parts of New York in the sort of original Bible Belt, you know, the burned-over district that religious historians talk about where evangelicalism has swept through across generations. And part of the reason for that is actually the early 1830s violence makes it very clear that an institution for the advancement of colored people, of the education of colored people, in big cities like New York likely won’t survive, but it also won’t survive in small towns like Canaan, New Hampshire. And it was precisely the ability of the anti-abolitionists to reach Canaan and destroy the school that imposes a new fear upon the abolitionist campaign and forces it to look for new directions.
AMY GOODMAN: Where does Frederick Douglass fit into this story? Does he at all?
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Yeah, actually, he does. In the—by the 1840s and 1850s, in particular, the campaign for African-American higher education is largely relegated to the National Negro Conventions. And it’s actually men and women like Douglass who keep that conversation going. And, you know, there are differences of opinion about what black abolitionists should be striving for, but one of the things that they all understand is that the struggle against slavery can’t succeed unless black—free black people can establish a well-educated professional class who are capable of fighting for the rights of the broader group and defending their liberties.
AMY GOODMAN: In 1895, W.E.B. Du Bois receives a doctorate from Harvard, the first African American to do so. That’s 1895.
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Yeah, yeah. And, right, it’s an extraordinary moment. But think about how late that is in Harvard’s history. Yeah, when I—in the introduction to the book, the acknowledgments, one of the things I point out is this—how incredible some of these distinctions are. And that’s where the book began. It began with me just being really intrigued by these distinctions. And I’ll just give a couple of examples. The first Native American student to graduate from a college graduates probably 170 years before the first black student, 160, 170 years. The first attempt—the first actually Native American to be ordained in the Protestant ministry is probably a good 150 years, 140 years, before the first black person to be ordained. The first attempt to build a college for Native Americans is 210 years before the first attempt to build a black college, the one we were just talking about in New Haven.
And when you say it that way, as I said before, it sounds like Native Americans are privileged. In fact, actually, what it really speaks to is the extraordinarily aggressive role that the college plays in the conquest of the Americas. We have to think of colleges as imperial instruments in the colonial world. That’s the role that they had played in Britain, where the crown begins to endow and fund universities in Scotland and Ireland, precisely to extend its influence and its control over those regions, where education was always seen as a wonderful piece of cultural weaponry that could be deployed. And colleges get deployed in the Americas, too. And so, what explains the difference between the relationship—the difference in the relationship between African Americans and Native Americans and colleges is precisely the role of the college.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Wilder, you dedicate the book to Gloria Wilder.
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Is that your mother?
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: That’s my sister.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s your sister.
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Yeah. The first book I wrote, my mother got. The second book, my oldest sister Terrie got. And this is my second-oldest sister, Gloria, so she gets this one. And now I’m done.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about—
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: I have no more siblings, and so I’m—
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about your own family?
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Sure.
AMY GOODMAN: You were the first in your family to go to college?
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Yeah, my sister and I were the first in our family to go to college. We’re the first generation to go to college. And this is why I think when I talk about the book and the motivations behind the book, the idea that I’m—you know, I want to make it clear to people, I’m not attacking colleges. But I think we have an obligation, as academics and as institutions of higher education, to be as honest about our own history as we are about the history of the nation, the history of churches, the history of people, immigration and processes. We have as much obligation to be honest and revealing about ourselves. Many of the institutions in the book I either went to as a student or I worked at. I love those institutions. You know, Columbia here in New York gave me a chance to go from being a—you know, the son, one of three children of a single mother raising us by herself, moving herself from food stamps and public assistance to a unionized city job by studying at night, who then worked two jobs for 20 years to give us a chance to go to college and a chance to change our lives.
AMY GOODMAN: You grew up in Bed-Stuy?
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: I grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. And, you know, Columbia actually helped me realize that vision, her vision, her goal for us, and what eventually became my goal for myself. And so I have nothing but the greatest affection for that institution. You know, Williams gave me my first teaching job, and it was an extraordinary opportunity.
AMY GOODMAN: And yet, the story of Williams?
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: And the story of Williams is in the book. You know, Ephraim Williams, the founder of Williams, a colonel, a military colonel, before the Battle of Lake George, you know, writes out his will, and he leaves his slaves and—to his siblings, and some money and land for the establishment of a college in western Massachusetts. And eventually the town of—the town, Williamstown, renames itself Williamstown and makes a claim upon that endowment to establish the new school. He’s killed in the battle, so he never sees the new school established. But, you know, and here you have, in fact, multiple histories crossing, because you have the history of Williams, the college, you have African-American history, the history of Colonel Williams’ slaves, his family, but you also have Native American history—the push of white people westward into Massachusetts and the ways in which Native American communities were living in increasingly constricted spaces and being moved off land by both legal and extralegal mechanisms, which Colonel Williams was heavily involved in. You know, there’s wild speculation in that part of the state. And all sorts of institutions get used to help make these land claims.
AMY GOODMAN: In all of your research, what were you most shocked by?
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: I think, honestly, the thing that most shocked me, there are these moments where you—you wrestle with difficult questions. You know, certainly when you’re seeing—when I was doing the work on the slave ship, The Wolf, which the Livingstons send out to the African coast and which takes, you know—
AMY GOODMAN: And Livingston is tied to Yale.
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Yeah, Livingston is tied to Yale, to Columbia, to Princeton and to Rutgers.
AMY GOODMAN: And the ship is called?
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: The Wolf.
AMY GOODMAN: And it is sent to?
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: It’s sent to the African coast on a slaving mission that takes basically a year and a half, an extraordinarily long time. The ship has—the captain has a hard time actually purchasing enough captives to get a full complement, as his surgeon will say, and so he’s holding people below deck for months as he hops between these various ports on the African coast attempting to purchase more people. A lot of the people on board, a lot of the captives on board, are actually small children. And so, you know, this is a voyage in which the surgeon actually goes through—the ship’s surgeon goes through a series of emotional crises himself, which he records in his diary. Babies are dying, two and three years old. He’s doing autopsies on them to try and figure out why they’re dying. He’s finding, you know, that they’re dying of the flux. They’re dying—they have worms, some 12 inches long. It’s a horrific tale. The—
AMY GOODMAN: Didn’t people rise up on the ship?
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Yeah, there’s actually an attempted slave revolt on board before the ship departs. More people actually die on the return journey across the Atlantic. And when they arrive back in New York and the Livingstons put them up for sale, they’ve probably ended up killing as many people as they’ve sold.
AMY GOODMAN: So it was about 200 people, or a little less, on board to begin with.
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Yeah, right.
AMY GOODMAN: There’s like 88 or something left.
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Yeah, and the population drops significantly. But the number of people who are killed just along the African coast is just astounding and disturbing. And I want to remember, as I sort of, you know, retell that story in the book, that for me that’s probably the hardest and most shocking thing, but it’s shocking for all of us. You know, it’s—I’m not making a sort of proprietary claim upon, you know, emotional outrage to that kind of historical event. And so, the thing that probably shocked me most was that you have those moments where you just, as a historian, have to find a way to tell a gruesome story, because that story is necessary to understanding in three dimensions this moment in time. But even more shocking was how many of those stories there are. You know, you can find a version of that story for every college that’s established in the colonial world. You’re playing basically two degrees of separation from some horrific slaving voyage.
AMY GOODMAN: In the process, have you traced your own family’s roots?
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: No, actually, my niece and nephews and I, this is a summer event that we’re planning, now that this is finished. We’re actually going to try and keep our promise to head south to North Carolina and South Carolina, where my father’s family, mother’s family, respectively, are from, and start tracing more of the family history. We’ve done some of it, but not all of it.
AMY GOODMAN: Are you related to Governor Wilder of Virginia, the first African-American governor of Virginia?
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Our Wilders, my father’s side of the family, is right across the Virginia border from his. You know, they’re on the North Carolina side, and he’s on the southern Virginia side, and so there probably is some relationship. You know, we would recognize him, but he wouldn’t recognize us. And so, there’s no direct relationship that I know, but I imagine there must be. And certainly, when he was governor—you know, both my sisters live in Virginia—it was a great time to be a Wilder in Virginia, and so I miss him.
AMY GOODMAN: And Duke University, its history?
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Duke’s not in the book, you know, and mainly because, actually, the Duke that we know is—you know, a lot of the money actually moves to it in the early 20th century. And so, much of what creates it as the institution we know today happens after this book is done, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Howard University?
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Howard University is not in there, but, you know, the—the story ends at the Civil War. And Howard and the historically black colleges that will be established right after the war, I think, are a fascinating topic, because, you know, not only do you have some of the first institutions that are educating African Americans in large numbers, but you also in fact have a significant Native American presence on those campuses during their early years. And so, there are versions of the Indian College, although they’re a little more integrated, that we talked about earlier.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for being with us.
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Craig Wilder is author of the new book, Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities.
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