Craig Steven Wilder visits Penn GSE to discuss why colleges are still reluctant to acknowledge their ties to slavery

February 5, 2018

In recent years, students and researchers at some of the country's most prestigious universities have begun looking at those institutions' ties to slavery.

 Many of those investigations – including an ongoing project at Penn – were inspired in part by MIT historian Craig Steven Wilder, and his 2013 book Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America's Universities.

Or, as Penn GSE historian Jonathan Zimmerman said introducing Wilder as Penn GSE's first Visiting Scholar of Color for 2018: "All of us are working in Craig's shadow and we are all in his debt."

During his January 31 visit to Penn GSE as part of the school’s 10th annual Visiting Scholars of Color lecture series, Wilder gave a standing-room only crowd a lesson on the actual origins of higher education in the United States.

The nine colleges that existed in colonial America depended on slave-holding families living in the thirteen colonies and the West Indies for students and donations.

When they arrived at Princeton, the first person many students met was the president's slave. At the time Thomas Jefferson attended William & Mary, about 10 percent of students brought personal slaves with them.

When the American Revolution broke out, many of these colleges were forced to relocate. Often, Wilder said, college leaders would look for a town with a large enough slave population to carry out the necessary labor. Yale, for example, temporarily moved to the two Connecticut towns with the largest slave populations.

After Independence, Wilder said, higher education boomed in the United States, with the number of colleges tripling, most of which were founded in southern states.

"Princeton, Rutgers, Penn, Brown, all of the colleges that survived the American Revolution, and all of the new colleges that are founded, are possible because the slave economy rebounds," Wilder said. "The labor and bodies of enslaved peoples actively funded the educational revolution."

Even as slavery receded in northern states, Wilder said, northern colleges continued to increase their ties to slaveholding families, slave traders, and merchants who made their money in north Atlantic industries fueled by slavery.

In 1838, the Jesuit order sold more than 200 slaves from plantations in Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware. Previously, those plantations helped to fund Georgetown. The proceeds from the sale were used to build St. John's and Holy Cross, the first Catholic colleges in New York and New England.

Even MIT, which was founded in abolitionist Boston the same month Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter, has ties to slavery, Wilder said. The school's original mission was to train engineers and other workers for factories that processed raw materials like cotton and sugar grown by slaves.

Why has this history been hidden? Wilder noted during the question and answer session that he was not the first historian to examine these records.

"They made all sorts of historical and moral justifications about what they were seeing so they could discount the history of slavery on campus," Wilder said.

Those justifications have, in part, shaped a view that northern states were mostly innocent of slavery's sins, Wilder said.

For most of their history, Wilder said, universities have treated people of color as recipients of their goodwill, "not people who have a moral claim on us," Wilder said. Revelations about slavery can change that.

The conversation Georgetown is now having about what it owes to the decedents of the Jesuits' slaves could hold key lessons for other institutions. But before they can act, Wilder said, colleges have to acknowledge their past.

"The first duty they have is to research and make public their histories," Wilder said. "This is what we do … We have no right to stop the process when the subject is ourselves."

Wilder is continuing his research. He leads a class at MIT where he and students look at their institution’s ties to the Atlantic slave trade.

During his presentation, Wilder welcomed Caitlin Doolittle, a Penn senior, who described how the Penn Slavery Project is documenting Penn's ties with the slave trade. So far, the project has identified 20 founding Penn trustees who owned slaves.

The next goal, Doolittle said, is to try to learn more about the experience of those enslaved people, and the slave community in colonial Philadelphia near Penn's first campus in what is now Old City.

Penn GSE's next Visiting Scholar of Color will be Travis Bristol, an assistant professor at Boston University who studies the experiences of teachers of color. Among other things, Bristol’s work has furthered research by Penn GSE’s Richard Ingersoll on the teaching profession. He will be at Penn GSE February 14.