“The task of the historian is to tell difficult truths as honestly as we can and to tell help the reader understand both the complexities and the disturbing realities of the past.”
Professor Craig Steven Wilder, head of the history faculty at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, offered that thought as part of describing his new book, Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, during an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program at Eckstein Hall on Wednesday. The book serves the purpose he set forth, describing the painful and long history of involvement of colleges and universities in the American colonies and in the United States with slavery and promotion of “scientific racism,” pseudoscience that promotes the superiority of white people.
Wilder described, both in the book and to the audience at Marquette Law School, how major institutions such as Harvard and Yale had long and close relationships with the slave business. That included recruiting the sons of slave traders and plantation owners as students, benefitting from large donations from very wealthy businessmen who were involved in slavery, and promoting thinking that black people and American Indians were inferior and should be suppressed. It also included the fact that many students in the slavery era brought their slaves with them to campus, including in the north.
The academy did not stand apart from slavery, as Wilder put it. While in some university and college quarters, the movement to abolish slavery received important support, in other quarters, some of the worst excesses of racism were supported and practiced. The issue was northern as well as southern.
“We can’t escape that past, we can’t run away from it, so we might as well turn and confront it as honestly as we can,” Wilder said. He said universities have been good at doing that with slavery involving other sectors of American life, but not at turning that eye on themselves. It is important to understand matters such as the role of higher education institutions in promoting “scientific” race-related thinking that fueled much of what happened in the United States in the 1820s and 1830s, he said.
An audience member asked Wilder if there are there still fragments of this kind of thinking going on in universities and colleges now. “Sure. Yes,” he answered. “Colleges and universities still have very complicated roles that need to be publicly discussed and debated and need to be exposed to democratic processes.” He said he was concerned that increasing privatization of such institutions was making that harder. But he said he was gladdened by the reception his book has gotten, including among those involved in some of the higher education institutions with histories exposed in the book.
“Colleges and universities are capable of extraordinary good, but we have to put them to that task,” Wilder said. Institutions do what people direct them to do. He said, “We direct them today to do things that are foolish, wasteful, and often socially irresponsible.” In recent periods, opening the doors of higher education to those who were historically excluded was a high priority. Wilder called that a noble goal, but said, “We’ve slipped, and we’ve slipped significantly from that.”
Video of the session may be viewed by clicking here. Milwaukee Public Television recorded the conversation for broadcast at times that have not yet been set.