Howard University Graduate School

HUGS Research Magazine
and Graduate School Research Archive

BOOK Issue 002

Ebony and Ivy by Craig Wilder: A Kirkus Review

Craig Steven Wilder, Ph.D., is Professor and Head, History; Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Video: Courtesy of Democracy Now.

In an eye-opening examination of how America's colonial-era colleges were rooted in slave economies and "stood beside church and state as the third pillar of a civilization built on bondage," Wilder (History/MIT; In the Company of Black Men: The African Influence on African American Culture, New York University Press, New York City, 2001) establishes the interrelationship between slave-cultivated plantations and the academic institutions that lived off the rents gathered through endowments, leases, mortgage debts and other instruments of feudal-style bondage.

At first, land holdings were acquired through conquest of native populations, followed by successive phases of clearance and resettlement. "The Indians-for-African trade reduced the risk of enslaved Indians fleeing to their own lands or inciting conflicts," writes Wilder, "and brought a population of African slaves who lacked knowledge of the local geography and languages but possessed important agricultural skills, particularly in rice production."

The slave trade developed in complexity as it grew in scale. Universities and colleges not only required their own endowments of land as sources of income and supplies, but also served to educate the leaders and administrators of the colonial settlements, who often became apologists for slavery.

Wilder provides an excellent exploration of the role of the College of New Jersey and the Rev. John Witherspoon in the education of the leaders (James Madison and Patrick Henry, among many others) and their successors (John Marshall and James Monroe), who formulated the Indian Removal Act of 1830. His detailed elaboration of how Northern colleges spread the slave system into colonies like South Carolina and Georgia is equally thorough, and he also documents how race science took root in American academia.

A groundbreaking history that will no doubt contribute to a reappraisal of some deep-rooted founding myths.

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