By Samantha Samel
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
American institutions of higher education have long been considered a path to progress – a college education is the first step along the road to the American Dream. But a closer look at the development of several of these institutions reveals that many are concealing histories deeply rooted in injustice. In his new book “Ebony and Ivy,” Bed-Stuy native Craig Steven Wilder, a history professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, divulges troubling truths about race, slavery and their function in the development of the American academy.
In 2006, a report commissioned by Brown University’s then-president Ruth Simmons revealed the school’s complex and still disputed involvement in slavery, provoking a controversy that garnered national media attention. But Brown’s disturbing past was not out of the ordinary. Many of America’s most prestigious colleges and universities – among them Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Williams College – have alarming ties to slavery.
Wilder sheds light on numerous institutions throughout the North and South that exploited African Americans and American Indians beginning in the Colonial period and continuing through the 19th century. He examines how these institutions capitalized on the slavery-driven economy and the confiscation and redistribution of Indian lands and contends that once established, the schools continued to assume an active role in perpetuating racist practices. Administration members readily accepted financial assistance from slave owners and traders and sometimes even sought out such support.
That slavery was deeply embedded in American society during the years that Wilder’s book chronicles is uncontroverted; however, Wilder's revelations about the complicity of many of our esteemed educational institutions in the nation's crimes against humanity are more startling. “Ebony and Ivy” challenges our assumptions about the history of higher learning in this country and the extent to which the very schools that are credited with advancing progressive thought actually perpetuated injustices for a larger portion of our population.
Craig Steven Wilder is professor of American history at MIT and has taught at Williams College and Dartmouth College. Wilder received his PhD from Columbia University. He is the author of “A Covenant with Color” and “In the Company of Black Men.”