The central premise of “Ebony & Ivy” is that the history of American higher education, especially that of its oldest and most venerated institutions, is riddled with racism. “Human slavery,” Craig Steven Wilder writes in one of the sweeping generalizations to which he is susceptible, “was the precondition for the rise of higher education in America.” Like it or not, there is more than a kernel of truth here, but in his determination to root out racism wherever it was to be found in the groves of academe — the groves of Harvard and Yale and Virginia and Chapel Hill, to name but four of the many that squirm under his unrelenting microscope — Wilder soars way over the top, pinpointing certifiable culpability in many cases but straining to find it in many others.

Judging by what he says in his acknowledgments, “Ebony & Ivy” was inspired by the efforts that have been made on many campuses, perhaps most notably that of Brown University, to bring to light past practices that reflect poorly on the institutions involved. Thus, for example, it is now common knowledge that the fortune hauled in by the various members of the Brown family, which gave its name and zillions of dollars to the celebrated university in Rhode Island, came substantially from the slave trade. Similarly, it is common knowledge (at least in academic circles) that parts of the original campus of my alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, were built by slave labor.

Alas, it goes much further than that. I was saddened to read that “before they became the presidents of the College of New Jersey and Yale, respectively, the Connecticut evangelist Jonathan Edwards and the Rhode Island minister Ezra Stiles both purchased African children through the captains of slave ships in Newport.” Edwards is my namesake and direct ancestor, through both my paternal and maternal lines. That this celebrated (or notorious) fire-and-brimstone preacher was also a slaveholder is not exactly something in which to take pride, and it doesn’t explain things away to say, as a historian writing about Yale’s early days did, that “it was a common custom of the times to own Negro or Indian slaves.”

It is useful, though, to be reminded of what we too often forget, especially if our roots are in the Northeast: that slaveholding was indeed “common custom” there during the colonial period and the early years of the republic. Slave-trading was essential to the economies of many if not most of the great seaports from Boston and Newport to Philadelphia and Baltimore, often conducted by merchants who moved into the highest and wealthiest strata of local society. “Behind every great fortune there is a crime,” Honore de Balzac said, and there is painful corroboration of this in the histories behind many names that litter the social registers of New York, Boston and other cities that now pride themselves on their liberality and political correctness.

“American colleges had their genesis in this Atlantic economy,” Wilder writes. “Colonial merchants were not for the most part scholars, but they became the patrons of higher education.” A few pages later he says, “Throughout the Mid-Atlantic and New England, higher education had its greatest period of expansion as the African slave trade peaked,” and, as we have seen above: “Human slavery was the precondition for the rise of higher education in the Americas.” The connection probably is not as intimate as Wilder would have us believe, as this was a period when almost everything in the colonies was expanding, by no means all of it due to the slave trade, but the broad conclusion that he reaches strikes me as in essence true:

‘Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities’ by Craig Steven Wilder (Bloomsbury. 423 pp. $30). (Bloomsbury)

“In the decades before the American Revolution, merchants and planters became not just the benefactors of colonial society but its new masters. Slaveholders became college presidents. The wealth of the traders determined the locations and decided the fates of colonial schools. Profits from the sale and purchase of human beings paid for campuses and swelled college trusts. And the politics of the campus conformed to the presence and demands of slave-holding students as colleges aggressively cultivated a social environment attractive to the sons of wealthy families.”

It was not quite as pat as that — more on this in a moment — but there is an essential truth here that for generations we have tried to ignore or deny: that the influence of slaveholding in American life has been far deeper and more pervasive than we realize. In part this is a consequence of denial, in part of sheer ignorance, but the influence of slaveholding and the slave trade went far beyond the plantations of the cotton and tobacco states of the South. The vast amounts of money thus generated fed the economies of places that in time would claim innocence of it. By the 1830s, Wilder writes, “The northern elite was cleansing the stain of human slavery from the story of its prosperity,” which is true: “The great families distanced themselves rhetorically from the planters of the West Indies and the South — despite numerous shared surnames — by claiming histories as merchants, investors, and insurers, and then elevating underwriting, finance, and trade to high arts. Slave traders became Atlantic merchants, and the biggest firms received the greatest praise. It was an age of euphemism, populated with fragile lies, half-truths, and deflections.”

History does not always tell us things we want to know about ourselves, this being very much a case in point. Wilder for the most part keeps his outrage in check as he chronicles the connections between the early years of American slavery and the rise of American higher education, but by the same token he doesn’t always keep his sense of balance in check. He has a tendency to engage in guilt by questionable association. He writes, for example, “Founder of the College of Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin began his published condemnation of the Conestoga bloodshed by casually accepting that Indian populations ‘diminish continually’ whenever ‘settled in the Neighbourhood of White people.’ ” That is a non sequitur; there is no connection between Franklin’s role in founding what is now the University of Pennsylvania and his views on Indians and whites. Or: “Councilor John Watts of New York, a trustee of King’s College, fumed over the western forts and towns sacked by the Indians.” What does his fuming have to do with his position as trustee of what is now Columbia University? One more: “Charles Fenton Mercer, a 1797 graduate of New Jersey and possibly the originator of the colonization idea, established the Liberia colony in 1822.” What does his graduation from what is now Princeton have to do with his involvement in the Back-to-Africa movement?

In his eagerness to tar higher education with the brush of slavery, Wilder is too quick to draw conclusions that to the more dispassionate eye seem considerably less obvious. Over and over he lists trustees of colleges who were slaveholders, but the connection between the one and the other strikes me as questionable at best. True, if they supported these colleges with money earned from the slave trade, there is undeniably a connection, but if they were simply trustees who happened to be slaveholders, the connection is less clear. This is not to excuse either their slaveholding or the colleges’ willingness to wink at it, but to make the point that these matters almost certainly were more complicated than Wilder’s zealous analysis would have us believe.

It also should be noted that at times Wilder allows higher education to drift into the background as he digs into matters only marginally connected to it. One senses that what he really wanted to do was to write a history of slavery in the Americas and that he seized on higher education as a way into it. A professor of history at MIT who has also taught at Williams and Dartmouth, Wilder knows a great deal about his subject and does not flinch from facing it head-on. But though there is much to admire in “Ebony & Ivy” and much to learn from it, there are also too many connections made in it that don’t really connect. History written with passion can make for terrific reading, but it isn’t always accurate history.


Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities

By Craig Steven Wilder

Bloomsbury. 423 pp. $30