Book Review: Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America's Universities
Publication Date: Sep 02, 2014
Page Count: 432
Imprint: Bloomsbury Press
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
Parent Company: Bloomsbury Publishing
Book Reviewed by Kam Williams
“Ebony & Ivy… delivers a groundbreaking and incendiary exploration of the intertwined histories of slavery, race, and higher education… Many of America’s revered colleges and universities… Harvard, Yale, and Princeton… were drenched in the sweat, the tears, and sometimes the blood of people of color…
Money from the purchase and sale of human beings built the campuses, stocked the libraries, and swelled the endowments of American colleges. Slaves waited on faculty and students; academic leaders eagerly courted the support of slaveholders and slave traders.
Ultimately, our leading universities were thoroughly dependent on enslavement and became breeding grounds for the racist ideas that sustained it. In short, the American academy never stood apart from American slavery—it stood beside church and state as the third pillar of a civilization built on bondage.”
—Excerpted from Foreword (Excerpted from the book jacket)
Most people hold the Ivy League in high esteem as an exclusive oasis of intellectual thinking where one can acquire an excellent education. What they might not know is that its long-revered universities were also once intimately involved in slavery, depending on that evil institution for everything from funding to free labor.
Furthermore, places like Princeton served as a proving ground for the sons of plantation owners being trained in classes on slave management that:
“For Sullenness, Obstinancy, or Idleness… Take a Negro, strip him, tie him fast to a post; take then a sharp Curry-Comb, & curry him severely til he is well scrap’d; & call a boy with some dry Hay, and make the Boy rub him down for several Minutes, then salt him & unlose him.”
From inciting anti-abolitionist riots, to spearheading the back to Africa movement to teaching courses codifying the notion of white superiority, the Ivy League openly functioned as a subtle affirmation of slavery.” Despite the fact that it had played such a pivotal role in the creation and maintenance of a color-coded society, it would later put considerable effort into “cleansing the stain of human slavery from the story of its prosperity.”
This is the thesis of Craig Steven Wilder, as eloquently substantiated in Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History. A professor of history at MIT, Wilder’s painstakingly-researched opus uncovers the ugly underbelly of Ivy League and other Colonial era colleges like Rutgers and Williams.
The author goes on to point out how, after the Civil War, “some of the best-educated people in the nation were revising history to romanticize and sanitize their relationship to bondage. They erased their pasts as masters or reimagined their slaves as a lower order of adopted family—trusted, faithful, and beloved servants whom they had treated with dignity and human sympathy.”
Yankee academia exposed as a former bastion of Southern aristocracy.