Diane talks with Theodore Johnson, a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice and an expert in race and electoral politics.
A 2006 report commissioned by Brown University revealed the institution’s involvement in slavery, setting off a controversy that made headlines across the country. But Brown’s troubling past was far from unique. In a new book, American history professor Craig Steven Wilder lays bare uncomfortable truths about race, slavery and the American academy.
- Craig Steven Wilder Professor of American history, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Read An Excerpt
Excerpted from “Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities” by Craig Steven Wilder. Copyright © 2013 by Craig Steven Wilder. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Many of America's elite colleges, both in the North and the South, were founded by slaveholders. And many of those institutions owned slaves used for work, trade and sale. Historian Craig Steven Wilder has written a book exploring the history of slavery, race and the higher education in America. His book is titled, "Ebony and Ivy." He joins me to talk about his findings. I'm sure you'll want to be part of the conversation. Give us a call. 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet.
MS. DIANE REHMWelcome, sir. It's good to have you here.
MR. CRAIG STEVEN WILDERI'm glad to be here. Thank you.
REHMYou know what? I'm interested that you're a professor of American history at MIT; you've taught at Williams College, Dartmouth College; and now you're writing about the universities and their connections to racial history. What was the hardest part of this book to write?
WILDERI think was actually personal. It was balancing my, as you described it, my long history in these universities, my long history with these institutions, both as a student and as a faculty member -- balancing that with the details of their past that I was starting to uncover. And then trying to make sense of what those details meant. What they meant for the institutions that I actually care about.
WILDERYou know, I'm a, you know, at my heart, I'm a kid from Brooklyn who grew up with a single mother, and who became a college professor because of these very universities, because they gave me a chance to actually -- and my family a chance -- to transform our lives. And so I actually love these institutions. I love higher education.
REHMSo what was it that led you first on this path?
WILDERHonestly, it was an accident. I had been teaching at Williams for about seven years. I was moving over to Dartmouth College back in 2002. I had taken a job there -- accepted a position there. And I wanted to stay busy. And so I decided I was going to write this very short little article on how black abolitionists -- the free African-Americans in the Northeast, these communities -- how they became professionals, teachers, doctors, ministers, in a nation where they couldn't go to college. And the quick of the story is they actually went to small towns.
WILDERVery often they went to little towns in New England from New York and Philadelphia, from Baltimore. And they studied privately. They studies in these schools that lasted only two or three years. But, in fact, as I started doing the research for that little article that, you know, was supposed to take me about six months, I ended up getting -- asking bigger questions. Why couldn't they attend these schools? In fact, why couldn't they attend these schools when Native American students had been on campus for almost 200 years by that point?
WILDERSo that the barrier wasn't just race, there was something else happening. And the something else was, the colleges weren't passive. They were actively operating in the society and they were actively operating in a society with slavery, very often in defense of slavery.
REHMTake us back, for example, to Harvard, to Yale and to the money and the power that established those universities.
WILDERSure. You know, I think you can see this at Harvard at its very beginning. Harvard's established in 1636. And, I point out in the book, this is only six years into the Puritan migration. It's a strange thing to do to build a college. The Virginians had done something similar. They arrived in 1607 and, within a decade, they have a charter for a college. The college never gets established. There's a massive Indian war that eventually destroys the grant that the Virginians got. But, you know, they had laid out 20,000 acres. They had tenants. They were raising rents.
WILDERThey had sent a, basically a rector to govern over the school. The plans were underway. And so, in both these places, within ten years, there was this attempt to build colleges. And, in fact, actually, in both places, both groups -- both the Puritans in Massachusetts and the Virginians -- are struggling just to sustain themselves, just to feed themselves. And they're going through the work of building a college. And so that just seemed strange to me. And it needed for an explanation. And part of the explanation that I arrive at in the book is that the college isn't a passive institution.
WILDERIt's actually part of the apparatus. It's part of the equipment of colonialism. And so the goal of early Harvard isn't just to provide orthodox ministers for the Puritans. In fact, by 1636, the Puritans were getting far more orthodox ministers than they needed from England. The migrations were continuing. The role of the college was actually to soften cultural resistance among Native Americans -- to create missionaries, but also to bring in native children, so that they could be educated and trained.
WILDERNative children. And here you have, you know, to get to that, what I had done is I spent -- I headed off to England and Scotland, like a good early-Americanist has to, right? You have to eventually go to England. And, if you look at what England is doing in the centuries before -- before any Englishman ever sets foot in the Americas -- one of the things they've done is they've actually endowed and funded colleges, universities, professorships in Scotland and Ireland.
WILDERWhere, in other words, in both places where the English first test and establish their empire -- the colonial structure that they'll actually become, sort of, you know -- will define the British Empire in the next centuries. Colleges played a key role.
REHMBut, what you're saying is that along the way, in order to both help build these institutions and maintain them, that Harvard, Yale, later on, were importing young African children to help with the construction and maintenance.
WILDERIt's Native American children being imported as students. And then they'll be sent back to actually missionize their own nations. George Berkeley, the famous 18th-century philosopher, after whom we've named everything -- you know, University of California, Berkeley, there are lots of Berkeleys around -- George Berkeley, the great philosopher, actually had a plan in the 1720s to build a college on Bermuda.
WILDERAnd the goal of the plan, as he laid it out, was to take Native American Indian children from friendly nations, and to kidnap children from hostile nations, to train them into an orthodox Christianity, and to send them back. But he wanted them at a key age. He wanted them between certain ages. As he described it: old enough to know their native tongue, but not too old to have actually adopted the bad habits of their communities. Slavery comes in actually simultaneous to this project, because slavery and the slave trade become the way that we fund this colonial enterprise.
WILDERThe struggling institutions that are Harvard, William and Mary, Yale, at their origins, actually managed to survive in a difficult colonial world by attaching themselves to new sources of wealth. And the greatest source of wealth in the Atlantic World, the emerging economy, is an economy based on African slavery and the slave trade. And so all of these institutions, the ones that survive, survive by actually insinuating themselves into...
REHMSo you say that slave owners really created some of the first colleges.
WILDERYeah. Yeah. And you can see it at Harvard. You know, Harvard has a kind of strange origin. In 1636, the college is chartered. The following year, John Harvard, the young minister, donates, you know, about, probably 750, 780 pounds in his will to the college. He passes away, leaves it to the college. They name the new college after him. The very next year -- or that very year, actually, the Puritans are engaged in a war in southern Connecticut with the Pequot Indians.
WILDERThe captives of the Pequot, mostly women and children, are sent on a ship named Desire from New England to Bermuda in the West Indies and sold into slavery. That ship, the Desire, actually returns to New England with various commodities, including slaves -- African slaves. These are the first enslaved people to arrive in New England. And the question becomes whether or not they can be held as slaves.
WILDERBut, in fact, what we find out is the very next year there's a black man on the Harvard campus who's owned by the only instructor, Nathaniel Eaton, the school master, and who serves Harvard's first students. And so slavery in Harvard -- slavery in New England and slavery at Harvard actually merged together.
REHMCraig Steven Wilder, his new book is titled, "Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, And The Troubled History of America's Universities." If you'd like to join us, give us a call, 800-433-8850. Send us an email to email@example.com. When we think of colleges, we're not necessarily thinking of slavery or colonialism or taking people to be used. We're thinking of educating people, and the desires of those institutions to do so. Was it hard for you, when you began delving into this, to realize exactly what you'd discovered?
WILDERI think, yes and no. I think, you know, because of Brown University, the report that they did in 2006, the work that's being done on a number of campuses, especially along the East Coast, north and south, about this long relationship between the colleges and slavery, I was prepared for some of it. I think the difficult parts were the moments where I ran into historical material, historical details, for which I simply didn't have answers. You know, there's a moment in the book, in the second chapter, when I'm writing about and I was researching the slave-holding patterns of college presidents.
WILDERAnd I'll just give some quick examples. The founders of Yale, in 1701, when Yale was founded in Connecticut, they arrive at the founding meeting followed by their slaves. At Princeton, then the college of New Jersey, the first eight presidents are slave owners. You know, at Yale, you know, the most famous presidencies, you know, Jonathan -- you know the most famous presidencies at Yale and Princeton, are actually under a slave-holding president. And I, oh, go ahead.
REHMCraig Steven Wilder. And when we come back, we'll talk further and take your calls. Stay with us.
REHMWelcome back. Craig Steven Wilder is with me. He has a new book all about race, slavery and America's universities. The book is titled "Ebony and Ivy." And Craig, just before the break, you were giving us some examples of presidents who showed up at universities with their own slaves in tow.
DR. CRAIG STEVEN WILDERYeah, and you know, it's a fairly common thing. You know, at Princeton one of the presidents, after he died, his slaves were actually sold from the president's house. But one of the things that I was responding to is your question about what was so difficult. And one of the difficult things came are the things for which you didn't have an answer at the beginning, you know, where you have to sort of do the difficult painful work of figuring out the answer. And when I looked at the slave-holding patterns of the presidents, fairly quickly you start to establish that lots of presidents were slaveholders.
DR. CRAIG STEVEN WILDERBut one of the things that pops up is the age of the people that purchase them. And so in chapter two I ended up spending a lot of time wrestling with the fact that they were very often buying children. You know, Jonathan Edwards, the famous evangelical minister who becomes president of Princeton and the college of New Jersey, buys a young girl in Rhode Island. and names her Venus. Ezra Stiles buys a young boy. He becomes -- Stiles becomes the president of Yale under...
REHMAnd these are all African American children.
WILDERThey're all African children bought from slave ship captains arriving back in New England. And we're talking about, you know, seven-year-olds, eight-year-olds. Eleazor Wheelock of Dartmouth shows up to Hanover, N.H. after he gets his charter with eight slaves, including an infant. And when you look at the slave-holding patterns of the presidents, one of the things I had to explain was why they were choosing children.
WILDERAnd it -- you know, the explanation I give in the book -- and I think I'm right -- is that the growing fear of slave revolts and slave insurrections in the 18th century, especially after the big revolt in Manhattan in 1712, a massive conspiracy in New York in 1741, smaller revolts in New England, led northerners to begin expressing a preference for children who they thought could be more easily socialized and controlled.
WILDERAnd in fact, actually, one Columbia -- then King's College -- Columbia University trustee actually advises a slave-trading captain in a personal note to bring children because in the northeast he can't sell adults. They have to be a certain age. And the younger -- basically he's saying the younger the better.
REHMCraig, you say that the science and medical schools were some of the most racist of all.
WILDERYeah, and I -- one of the things I wanted to do with the book was to really allow people to see both the relationship between colleges and slavery, the enslaved people who actually helped build the colleges. You know, Wheelock shows up with eight people. And those eight people are the people who -- first, they're the largest population of people on early Dartmouth's campus. But as he later admits in his narrative of his journey of the Indian school, he's using his slaves to lay out the grounds to raise all of the buildings. He has his laborers at work, as he puts it, improving the school.
REHMIs there any effort on anyone's part to begin to educate these slaves?
WILDERThere is. There is. It tends to be somewhat sporadic. William and Mary, I think, offers a great example because William and Mary probably has, you know, more slaves than any of the early colleges. The college, the trustees takes slaves, they purchase slaves. They take money to buy slaves. They take endowment basically for the purpose of buying slaves.
WILDERIn a single year they purchased 17 people. And the boys who go to William and Mary are allowed to bring slaves with them as personal servants. And probably about 10 percent of them by the middle of the 18th century are choosing to do that. Thomas Jefferson's classes in the early 1760s, about 10 percent of the boys in his class bring slaves with them as personal servants. And they just pay additional fees.
WILDERAt William and Mary there are sporadic attempts to actually educate the college slaves. But one of the things that happens -- and it ties into your question about science -- is there's a growing doubt about the educability of African-descended people in much the same way that there's a sort of genuine religious interest in the evangelization of Native Americans. There's also a growing doubt about whether or not the African mind is capable of real education and real Christian transformation.
WILDERAnd that, in addition to slavery itself, act as real barriers to education. One of the fears is that the educated African, the educated slave can't be enslaved. And so education always sits in tension with slavery.
REHMIndeed. We have many callers waiting. I want to open the phones. We have a call from James in Morgantown, W.V. James, you're on the air.
JAMESThank you, Diane. Thanks for taking my call.
JAMESMy question is, you've spoken, professor, about the college presidents. I'm curious about the students at the time. At Dartmouth, some of the older dormitories were laid out so that when you opened the door there was a large outer room and a smaller inner room. And the rumor on campus was that the smaller inner rooms were for the slaves who were owned by the students. And I'm wondering if you found anything in your research to confirm or disprove that.
WILDERWell, you know, I think at Princeton, at Dartmouth, at Columbia and I believe at Harvard there had been attempts to actually establish this relationship. It's a difficult one to establish. Early colonial colleges actually are certainly outfitted with servants quarters. And as Columbia shows, then King's College, the servants include enslaved Africans and European indentured servants.
WILDERAnd so Myles Cooper, one of the 18th century presidents of Columbia, King's College, you know, has an Irish indentured man who runs away. And he leaves -- the record of his servitude is actually left in the local newspapers because the president of Columbia's looking for his Irishman and describes him, in fact, in great detail.
WILDERWe also know that, for instance, George Washington arrives in the early 1770s at King's College at Manhattan with his stepson, Jacky Custis. And he's enrolling Jacky at Columbia for a number of reasons but one of them is actually he doesn't want him at William and Mary. Jacky has a bad reputation. He's actually been -- he's spoiled. He undisciplined. And it's quite clear that he had coerced sexual relations, intimate relations with his slaves. And so Washington wants him out of Virginia. He takes him up to New York.
WILDERWashington is accompanied on that journey by his personal servant. And Jacky is accompanied by his personal slave. And the president of Columbia, the same president Myles Cooper, outfits Jacky Custis with a suite of rooms inside the main building of the university, of the college. And Jacky has his room papered and painted. And he also has an interior room for his slave, who's kept on campus.
REHMSo James, your assumption could be right. Thanks for calling.
REHMOkay. Let's go to Paul in Concord, Vt. You're on the air. Paul, are you there? I guess not. Let's try Donald in Raleigh, N.C. Hello, Donald.
DONALDGood morning Thank you for taking my call and enjoy your show.
REHMCertainly. Thank you.
DONALDI had a quick comment and then one quick question. A lot (unintelligible) back then when they were brought over were -- some were more and they had great abilities in being able to build and engineer and do a lot of those things. So I think that that was a lot of the premise of them using them sort of, because they were great at doing those things. And they had built a lot of temples and monuments and things in our native country that once brought here they could use those same skills to build a lot of these buildings.
DONALDNow my question was, being kings and queens and all the things that we were back in (word?) and back in our native land, do you think that the big indoctrination when we got here into Christianity and a system of education and all the things that were indoctrinated now, do you think that that has a part to do with the downfall so to speak or the struggle that the African American or Native American goes through? Because it's just not our original stuff, although it's not better or worse, it's just not ours.
REHMWhat do you think, Craig?
WILDERI think first on the first part of his statement about the building of these institutions, you're absolutely right. I think the universities actually -- the colleges used enslaved labor. You can see this over and over again. And it had little to do with the sort of skills that enslaved people already possessed. It had to do simply with the availability of labor in the colonial world. So at Brown University in Rhode Island, then the College of Rhode Island, the local residents of Providence actually and Newport donate to the new college. And they donate lumber, they donate materials, but they also donate the time of their slaves. They actually donate their slaves to the project of building the college.
WILDERAs I said before, Wheelock shows up with eight slaves to build his new college in New Hampshire.
REHMBut how did they know how to do that?
WILDERWell, remember, they had built much of the colonial world. You know, the -- Newport and Providence are actually filled with buildings that were built by enslaved labor. And certainly in which enslaved labor participated in the building, much like Colonial New York where enslaved people were building everything from fortifications in the 17th and 18th centuries to barns and houses.
REHMAll right. To Paul in Concord, Vt. You're on the air.
PAULGood morning. This seems to be an appropriate time to mention that the capital building in Washington was built by slaves.
PAULThe other comment and a question, my comment is that this -- you know, James Baldwin and the letter to his nephew (unintelligible) writing to a young nine-year-old black child, I'll paraphrase his quote. He said, they, meaning white people, are trapped in a history that they do not understand. And until they can understand this history they can't be freed from it. And I think it's important to note that this story is just a microcosm of this nation and that what we're talking about here is built into the fabric of this nation. It's not a thing on the side. It's part of who we are as a nation and that we still haven't come to grips with that reality.
PAULAnd the -- I guess this is a question but it's interesting, and Diane, you framed it at the beginning. You talked about that this was a -- I forget exactly. I don't remember what you said but it was essentially, this was a show about race. But when we do a show about white people it's not a show about race. And it's interesting the way because white is so normative in our society, we don't even think about that. So we have a whole history of white -- particularly white men but white people making laws, policies, practices and procedures that benefit white people, but we don't see that as about race.
REHMPaul, I think you've raised some really good points.
WILDERYou know, I actually think that, you know, a book about colleges and slavery is ultimately in fact a book about slavery in the Atlantic world. It's a book about the origins of the United States. And what the college allows you to do -- and the reason why I, you know, stuck it out for 11 years to get this project done, is that the college ultimately allows you to understand the centrality of slavery and the slave trade, to the rise of the American colonies and ultimately to the rise of the United States.
WILDERAnd so I agree with the caller. The history of slavery is American history. But we are all in fact -- we will all never really be intellectually free and comfortable with our past until we can actually embrace the way that slavery actually affects us all, shapes us all and brought us to the moment that we're at.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show. Let's go to Birmingham, Ala. Hello, Dolita.
DOLITAGood morning. How are you?
REHMI'm fine, thank you.
DOLITAGood, good. My question is for the caller (sic) , he mentioned medical education and professional education to the most extent -- I mean, for the most part, I'm sorry. But -- and I have had personal experience with this because my own child went to Yale, although he did it successfully. But the bias that you mention in terms of, you know, the uneducability of African people still exists today in those institutions.
DOLITAAnd I guess I would -- how can we -- how can we uproot this institutionalized racism that continues to operate, you know, even -- you have very bright children coming into those places. But they meet those laws of resistance there. And every time I had to write a check that said Fleet National Bank, it hit me that these were slaveholders.
WILDERRight. And, you know, I think the larger, longer project of uprooting racism in the United States I'll leave to be tackled at another time. But I will actually offer a history to what you're describing. In the 18th century we begin to send large numbers actually, fairly large numbers of young colonial men to Europe to study science. They're coming out of Philadelphia, they're coming out of New Jersey, Virginia, Barbados, Jamaica. And these colonial students actually have intimate relationships with slavery and Native American conquests.
WILDERThey're very often young men who've grown up in slaveholding families. They're the sons of slave traders and this is why they actually have the money to go to Europe to study science. They arrive in Europe. And because they have intimate relationships -- they've had intimate relationships with Native Americans and Africans in the colonial world, they emerge as experts in Europe. They offer lectures on the course of disease among African people. They offer lectures on conditions and injury and Indian medical practices and herbal practices.
WILDERThey become experts but they also actually study science while they're there at Edinburg and in London, in France and in the Netherlands. And one of the things that they do is they leave a trail of dissertations in which they actually attempt to understand race themselves. They come back to the Americas and in Philadelphia they established the very first medical school. Another one will get established just a few years later in New York at what's now Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, College of Philadelphia.
WILDERBoth of them begin as the new medical faculty get access to the corpses of enslaved black people, black people accused of crimes or -- and the corpses...
REHMThey're using their cadavers.
WILDERAnd so at the very origin moment, science begins preying upon the marginalized, particularly the enslaved. And the bodies of the enslaved, in fact, become the material for the building of modern science in the Americas. And the two -- the relationship actually remains unbroken through the 19th century. It's one of the reasons why science gets so radically racialized in the 19th century.
REHMBut do those people continue, even upon use of African cadavers, to believe that African and white human beings are different?
WILDERYeah, and I think one of the things you have to do is look at that relationship overtime. Nancy Stepan, the sociologist back in the 1980's wrote a wonderful book called "The Idea of Race in Science" in which she actually pointed out that early race scientists, these 18th century scientists actually begin antislavery. And so the question is, how did they end up so radically proslavery in the 19th century and so radically racist in the 19th century? And the answer is actually the institutionalization of science. Building medical schools means that slave traders and slave owners now fund medicine and therefore shape science.
REHMCraig Steven Wilder. His new book is titled "Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery and the Troubled History of America's Universities."
REHMAnd the book we're talking about in this hour is titled, "Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America's Universities." The author is Craig Steven Wilder. He's professor of history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He's taught at Williams College and at Dartmouth College. Here is an email from Madison, in Stanton, Va., listening on radio IQ. He says, "The slavery in our past remains difficult to deal with. This discussion is another step in the continuing process of coming to terms with it.
REHM"If today's Ivy League college presidents gathered on 'The Diane Rehm Show,' accompanied by their slaves, that would be unacceptable. When the college presidents of those times gathered with their slaves it was acceptable. What is the profit of applying our moral values on others?" That's Madison's question.
WILDERSure. I want to say a couple of thing in response. First that I think this question about sort of presentism is an important one, but it can often be misleading. These aren't just our values. These are actually 17th and 18th century values. At the very moment when these relationships are being forged, there's extraordinary public discussion about the morality of slavery. The height of higher education in the colonial world, in colonial America, is actually in the decades just before the American Revolution, between 1746 and 1769.
WILDERSix new colleges were established, which means that the number of colleges in the British mainland actually triples to nine in this 23-year period, between the founding of Princeton and the founding of Dartmouth, in New Hampshire. Six new schools. All of them are founded with new relationships to slavery and the slave trade. It's precisely because this is the moment when the African Slave trade is peaking in the Atlantic world, that these schools are being founded. The money is now there to do it. The money's there for Baptists in Rhode Island, for a Congregationalists in New Hampshire, for Anglicans in New York and for Presbyterians in New Jersey.
WILDERThere's actually new wealth that allows these denominations to establish schools and to expand their infrastructure. And so at that moment, as that wealth is pouring in, there's also a conversation about the source of that wealth. This will actually lead John Wesley, just a few years later, to issue a condemnation of the African Slave trade throughout the Atlantic world, and to declare that it be better that all of Britain's possessions sink into the sea then that they be acquired at so high a cost to human decency and human morality. This debate is ongoing.
WILDERAnd so I don't think that this is a presentist moralism that we extend to the past. And I would agree with the emailer, that that actually is dangerous. But when the college presidents of the 18th century arrived with their slaves, arriving with their slaves actually did raise eyebrows from time to time. There were in fact real questions about whether or not enslaved people belonged in what was increasingly seen as a free society.
REHMSo how do you take what you have learned through your research and bring it forward to today's view of American colleges, what they teach, how they teach it and who comes in and who is kept out?
WILDERI think that what I've learned in the process of writing the book is that we have an obligation to the society and to ourselves -- we, as institutions of higher education have an obligation to the society and to ourselves to be honest about our past, to actually explore it with as much honesty and with as much rigor as we explore the history of other institutions. You know we get promoted and applauded and awarded and rewarded for writing the history of slavery and the churches. We write about slavery in Quakers. We write about slavery and the presidency. Thomas Jefferson and his slaves. Washington and his slaves.
WILDERWe have as much moral obligation to write about slavery within our own histories and to be as brutally honest as that as we can. Because, in fact, that's the foundation for an honest tackling of the great social questions of hour, too.
REHMNow, when you were teaching at MIT and you as an African American stand before your class, I presume, of many, many races and backgrounds, how do the white American students react to what you're saying?
WILDERI hope that I create an environment in which white students actually feel comfortable dealing with a difficult past. But I also want students of color to realize that that past is difficult, that they're not easy answers. You know, I'm not establishing an amen corner in one part of the classroom and an apology section in the other part of the classroom. I want my students to wrestle with and to see history as a confrontation with difficult social questions that actually has real value, real profit for us as a society.
REHMHere's an email from Carolyn, who says, "My son is considering going to Adrian College, in Michigan. Adrian College was formed in 1859 as an abolitionist college. In fact, there are tunnels from the Underground Railroad under the campus. I believe they taught people of all colors from the beginning."
WILDERYeah, and you get, in fact, a sequence of abolitionist colleges and abolitionist-leaning colleges beginning in the mid-1830s and right up until the eve of the Civil War. And I think these two statements are actually related because what I would remind both listeners is that we ultimately actually have a chance to really wrestle with probably the most profound social question of the 18th century, the 19th century and one that we spend a lot of time evading in the 20th. But what I actually find really quite encouraging is that if you look at Britain in 2006, 2007 when they did the anniversary of the slave trade exhibits, if you go to Liverpool and you go to the International Slave Trade Museum, if you go to New York when the New York Historical Society did the exhibits on slavery in New York, what was stunning was the diversity of the audience.
WILDERThe racial diversity, the ethnic diversity, the religious diversity, the class diversity of those audiences was really quite striking. I think the society is ready for a different kind of conversation. And I actually think my own publisher -- you know, I'm not sure that my publisher, you know, 30 years ago, that this is a project that they would have put this kind of effort into. Today, I think we all recognize that we're ready for a different kind of discussion, precisely because the history of slavery is no longer African American history, it's American history.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Tulsa, Okla. Akooah, you're on the air.
AKOOAHThank you so much, Diane. I really enjoy your show.
AKOOAHParticularly your guest today. Thank you very much, Mr. Edwards (sic), for bringing this information forward. I wanted to let you know that I'm a part of a unique psycho-social laboratory that's really brought forth research on the history of this country. And it's called Future America Basic Research Institute. And basically the information that we are hearing today from Mr. Wilder is just the facts. It's the facts. And I know you've heard the comment that once you get the truth, it will set you free. And if you look at our political divide today and the situations with the African American president, I think it will be real obvious to most people that what took place in our past is still pervasive in our future today.
REHMDo you see that, Craig Wilder?
WILDERI think we actually have a habit of evasion. I think we often avoid a difficult past. The problem with that and the problem just as a United States citizen, but also as a historian, is the past actually chases us. The past is relentless. History is there. It operates within our society. It operates within our institutions. And at some point in time we have to have a reckoning with it. And I think that what we need to remember is the consequence of that reckoning is actually a better, more unified society. I think we tend to fear division, when in fact that's not the consequence of an honest grappling with the past.
REHMDo you see the country struggling with the idea of an African American president?
WILDERSure. I think parts of the United States struggle deeply with the presence of an African American in the White House. And with rewriting the mental history, the emotional history of the presidency, as something that they had a specific kind of attachment to and now, in fact, that attachment has to change. Now, I also think that the supporters of the president need to have a similar kind of reckoning where we're not just celebrating the election of an African American president, but we're actually recognizing that transformative moments actually require work.
WILDERWe actually have to make them transformative.
WILDERThey're not transformative on their own.
REHMLet's go to Rob, in Arlington, Va. Hi there.
ROBHi. A great pleasure to be on your show.
REHMThank you, Rob.
ROBThree rapid-fire questions. First, a personal one. In my family we were related to Abraham Pierson. And it was one of those family lore that Pierson, who also founded Newark, N.J., was not involved in the slave trade or had slaves. I'd like to have the professor comment on that. And then the second and the third points have to do with the contemporary politics of the project. In 2001, three Yale doctoral students had started this process by looking at the naming of the colleges at Yale. And that created a firestorm with the law school responding with a conference. I'm curious what has been the response from universities, particularly elite universities to this work?
ROBAnd then the third question is what does the professor think of the fact that most universities today, spaces of free learning, derive their furniture from un-free labor, largely prison labor, which has been considered a kind of 20th or 21st century slavery, given the racial dynamics of the prison.
WILDEROkay. Pierson is actually in the book. And the founding of Newark Academy gets a mention in there. I write about in a bigger project. This is a region where, in fact, actually both slave holding and slave trading are critical to the founding of these institutions. And so I actually do write about this family and their influence on the rise of the New Jersey specific colleges, Rutgers and Princeton, but also Newark Academy, which is an Elizabeth academy, which are preparatory schools for the colonial colleges.
WILDERThe Yale students -- back in 2001 when Yale had its 300th anniversary, the problem with what happened is -- and I think it can easily be misunderstood. The graduate students who actually wrote the pieces on Yale and slavery didn't write those out of nowhere. They didn't just decide to one day wake up and attack the university by exploring its history with slavery. It was precisely the 300th anniversary that created this moment. Because, in fact, the university was engaged in the process of writing its own history.
WILDERAnd one of the aspects that was being left out was this long history with slavery, when, in fact, actually the university was quite happy to acknowledge its long traditions within abolitionism. And so this was done as sort of a corrective. And then it actually led to a sort of firestorm in New Haven and some other schools that spill over actually to Brown, when Ruth Simmons becomes president.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Now, what has been the reaction of these schools about which you write to your book?
WILDERI think in 2006, what happened at Yale, spills over. Ruth Simmons becomes president just a couple years later at Brown University. An African American woman, first woman, first person of color to head an Ivy League institution. And she commissions a study. In fact, because in many ways the rumors of slavery had been excited before she got there. And then her arrival certainly added to that whirlwind. She had the courage to actually put together the commission and John Campbell and the whole group at Brown wrote the report, "Slavery and Justice," which was published in 2006.
WILDERAnd to make a long story short, in 2006 I was four or five years into this project. I thought it was over. I thought all of Brown's peer institutions would write reports and then this history would largely be known and I could move on to something else. No one did. And so since my book has come out just a few months ago, what's happened is actually a lot of these institutions are beginning to really -- at the upper levels -- beginning to embrace the challenge of writing about this past.
WILDERYeah, looking at this. So Professor Sven Beckert at Harvard and a group and a group of graduate students and undergraduates did a publication actually just a couple years ago on Harvard and slavery, which is also a website. At William and Mary there was a museum exhibit. At the University of Virginia there's been a commission put together. At Alabama there was a statement, I believe, of the president and trustees. Now, at Columbia, Lee Bollinger has actually asked -- from what I understand -- Eric Foner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning, historic Eric Foner, to do a course on Columbia and slavery.
WILDERAnd so I think that we are actually at a turning point. But in part I think that's actually a recognition of the fact that the audience is ready for a different kind of story.
REHMOur caller also mentioned something about furniture being created by prisoners.
WILDERYeah, I won't get into the specifics of that because it's actually a very modern story and not too related to the book. But I actually work with incarcerated men in New York State through the Bard Prison Initiative at Bard College, in a program that allows incarcerated people to actually get their college degrees while they're incarcerated. And hopefully to really transform their lives and their families' lives when they do get released. I'm fully sensitive to the moral point of the caller's question.
WILDERI agree with him or what I think is the intent of it, that both mass incarceration and the use of the labor of incarcerated people are troubling phenomena in our society.
REHMCraig Steven Wilder. And his new book is titled, "Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery and a Troubled History of America's Universities." Thank you so much for telling this story.
WILDERThank you for having me.
REHMAnd thanks all for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
Most Recent Shows
Diane talks with Rick Hasen, a law professor and expert on election administration. His new book is "Election Meltdown: Dirty Tricks, Distrust, and the Threat to American Democracy."
Diane talks to McKay Coppins of The Atlantic about President Trump’s use of disinformation as the 2020 presidential campaign gets underway.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, talks about how the country is preparing.