A Civilization Built on Slavery

Responding to Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, by Craig Steven Wilder (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2013.

In the final paragraph of the prologue to Ebony and Ivy, Craig Steven Wilder makes a statement that could be looked upon as his thesis: “American colleges were not innocent or passive beneficiaries of conquest and colonial slavery. The European invasion of the Americas and the modern slave trade pulled peoples throughout the Atlantic world into each other’s lives, and colleges were among the colonial institutions that braided their histories and rendered their fates dependent and antagonistic. The academy never stood apart from American slavery—in fact, it stood beside church and state as the third pillar of a civilization built on slavery” (p. 11).

The portion of the Americas that this book treats is the eastern seaboard of North America, from New England through Georgia, the West Indies, and the eastern-most sections of the country across the mountains in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. The civilization discussed in the book was essentially English-speaking, Christian, Protestant (with strong rivalries between Puritan and Anglican colonies), and white. The academies included virtually all within this territory that were founded prior to the beginning of the Civil War: among them the most prestigious, including Harvard, Yale, and Princeton; some that became state universities, including University of Virginia and University of North Carolina; and smaller colleges such as Amherst, Dartmouth, Washington and Lee, and Transylvania.

Wiley mentions Hanover, a church college in Indiana close to the Ohio River, noting that its president was a slaveholder and that in 1836, when an antislavery association had begun meeting on campus, the trustees declared that it was “incompatible with the culture of the school [and] opposed by ‘at least nine-tenths of the students associated with the institution’” (p. 268).  The enslaved people whom Wiley discusses were primarily persons of African descent, but he gives some attention to the place of Native Americans in his historical account. He also shows that until late in the 1700s owning and working slaves was commonplace among northern and middle Atlantic academics and clergy (including John Cotton, Increase and Cotton Mather, Ezra Styles, Jonathan Edwards, and John Witherspoon).  Read more Ebony & Ivy

7 Responses to A Civilization Built on Slavery

  1. Katie Kronberg says:

    I love your blog!
    You probably don’t remember me- I sent you a Facebook request recently….We met at the Starbucks on Mass Ave last fall and I shared my poetry. Hope you’re well 🙂

    • Reading your comment, I do remember our conversation; so many of my conversations–and good intentions–slip away. I still stop by that Starbucks, but less often than last fall. I hope you still are writing poetry. My efforts at poetry largely stalled after I wrote a poem of appreciation for one of my high school teachers.

      • Katie Kronberg says:

        Well feel free to friend me on Facebook if you use it- I post poetry on there
        “KR Kronberg” on Facebook

  2. bobr42 says:

    Thanks for calling this book to my attention, Keith. It seems as if we are at a critical juncture in our society. Will we finally deal with the ugly reality of race as the most significant influence shaping our American identity? Or will we continue in denial, deepening the disease that afflicts us all.

    • Bob, thank you for your comment. Sometimes I think we are making progress, but then new signs of the pathology show up again. For me, one of the strangest parts of the story is that the two cities I know best–Portland and Indianapolis–both were strongholds of the Klan, and some of the spokespersons for the Klan were clergy.

  3. jacbikes says:

    Great review, Keith! Of course, on my present TransAmerica bike ride I have encountered much of the connection & dependence of institutions on slavery. Our tour of Monticello was very enlightening in regard to Jefferson’s dependence on slaves. They now have a separate tour focusing on the issue.

    I recently read “Robert E Lee: the Last Years” about his five year tenure as President of Washington College, which we also visited in Lexington, Va. Very interesting! Lee himself thought slavery to be wrong & never owned slaves, although be believed blacks to be inferior & thought emancipation should be undertaken gradually.. As executor of his father-in-law’s estate, & pursuant to the will, Lee freed over 600 slaves who were part of the eatate, the last in 1862. As college president he worked tirelessly to reconcile southerners with the north & to put animosity behind them. The book is full of personal stories about Lee, including his objection to erecting statues to war heroes, especially himself.

    I also recently went to a workshop on the Doctrine of Discovery, a very revealing look at the justification for colonialization, seizing of Native American lands, & driving them out to reservations.

    Three things rise to the top of my thoughts. 1) Slavery & colonization, as you say, were not just the purview of the south, but were prevalent also in the north & institutions in all regions depended on the institution of slavery. 2) Economics/money drives decisions & usually trumps moral or religious values, causing people who have strong moral/religious convictions to find rationalizations & justifications for continuing practices which benefit them economically. As my father used to say, “it all boils down to one five letter word – money!” 3) There are also, however, those who rise above the prevailing cultural & economic system, those who do not put money first, those who stand against dependence on unjust practices, to stand for justice & equality. Ovid Butler is one. Abolitionists, like those who founded Eureka College (faithful members of 1st Christian Church in Bloomington, IL) & Berea College, which we just visited, & other religious, educational, & political leaders are powerful examples & models of how we can rise above prevailing systems of injustice & ultimately, hopefully, bring change.
    Thanks for a thoughtful review! Meanwhile, keep cycling!

    • Joe, thank for for your thoughts about my blog on “Ebony and Ivy.” I want to prepare a proper response. It may be that I will try to write a blog that includes your comment and my response. This afternoon I was at Half-Price Books and came across a book entitled “Slavery and the Church in Early America, 1619-1819,” by Lester B. Scherer (Eerdmans, 1975).Scherer’s PhD in the history of Christianity was at Northwestern. When the book came out he was teaching at Eastern Michigan University. Sydney E. Ahlstrom and Frederick A. Norwood, whose names are known to me, are included among those writing blurbs about the book. I bought it and will get to it soon. As for cycling, I am in the process of rebuilding my strength. I had an easy winter because of a physical therapist’s counsel and the weather. My sore leg problem seems largely to be overcome. This week I rode 75 miles. About seven of those miles today (on a ride of about 25 miles) were through a drenching rain. I should have taken my bike with fenders. Your trip seems to be coming along well. Keith

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