Craig Steven Wilder’s Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America's Universities emerged after he had completed another book project researching the trajectory of professional African Americans who were moving to New England to pursue higher education.
"What I became more interested in was that Native Americans had been on these campuses for almost two centuries," Wilder, a professor of American history at MIT, says. "It forced me to start thinking about colleges as a participant in early American history instead of just sitting in the backdrop of that American history."
As Wilder started looking at history through the lens of American universities, he saw that they were not benevolent institutions apart from "the messy, complicated and often troubling past in the American colonies," Wilder says. "I saw these institutions as a product of the same history as the rest of us."
His research took him to Europe, where early universities' leaders originated; that research made him a better student, he says, of the synergistic relationship between Native American and African American histories. "What surprised me most was the extent to which Native American history and African American history speak to each other," Wilder says.
"Understanding the experience of one group requires understanding the history of one another. Not in the nice nice way that ‘everyone is oppressed and oppression is wrong,’ but to understand what's happening to Native people you have to understand the rise of the slave trade and their connection as people who have been commodified."
Ebony & Ivy traces the history of lands acquired through conquest and European-style bondage as a template for the rise of the slave trade in the American South. While institutions like Brown University, which famously published a report on the history of slavery on the campus in 2006, have started to look at the legacy of the slave trade on their respective campuses, Wilder says few universities have done similar work.
The general reluctance is "in part driven by a fear that there's something explosive or divisive in this history that needs to be avoided,” Wilder says. “But we have an obligation as institutions of higher education. We are given the charge to pursue truth. When we don't do that, it's not just an absence, it's a moral failing."
Joshunda Sanders is a writer and journalist.