by Kevin Cummings, Messenger Staff Writer
As dozens of colleges and universities delve into their imperfect pasts, one fact will remain—the slave economy was instrumental in the development and growth of higher education in this country.
But Craig Steven Wilder, a prominent scholar on the historical relationships between colleges and slavery, said by unblinkingly facing and embracing sins of the past, “there is a better story to be told” moving forward.
“There’s nothing in our archives that we need to be afraid of,” he said.
In a darkened Convocation Hall, lit only by large windows looking out onto gray skies and wind-whipped trees, Wilder spoke to a hearty crowd on March 26 about the impact of the slave trade on early colleges.
The Sewanee Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation sponsored the lecture, which was part of a series of events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. The Slavery Project, similar to current historical undertakings at many other universities, is aimed at examining Sewanee’s ties to slavery, the Confederacy and the Antebellum South.
Woody Register, director of Sewanee’s project, said on March 27 that Wilder’s lecture was encouraging to the effort.
“What was especially galvanizing for us was Professor Wilder’s enthusiastic support of our project and his stated belief that we are engaged in important work, for our campus and for the larger and national project of understanding how essential slavery was to the history of higher education in this country,” Register said.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where Wilder is a history professor, is also reconciling with its own past, he said. Wilder said it’s a past that includes endowments from slaveowners and capitalizing on engineering opportunities related to the slave trade, cotton production and the reconstruction of the South after the Civil War.
The earliest colleges in this country relied on benefactors whose wealth was directly or indirectly due to slave trading and labor, and plantation owners and others who boasted slave labor, he said.
“In the business of education, slavery was a way out of financial ruin,” Wilder said.
In 1718, Welsh merchant Elihu Yale, an East India slave trader, donated 400 books, cash and a painting of George I to the Collegiate School in New Haven, Conn., Wilder said. School leaders renamed the school “Yale” in his honor.
Nicholas Brown, Sr., co-founder of the College of Rhode Island, which eventually became Brown University, was a slaveholder, and there were slave traders on the college’s board, Wilder noted.
The Revolutionary War devastated colleges and some such as Harvard, moved temporarily inland, away from the dangers of being in port cities. When the institutions moved, they wanted benefactors with slaves, who could help re-establish campuses and assist students and faculty.
“Colleges sought out towns with the largest concentrations of slaves,” Wilder said.
For Harvard, the oldest college in the country, that meant temporarily moving from the coast to Concord, Mass., where slavery was “ordinary,” Wilder said.
Despite the devastation, after the war, college growth exploded in this country and ties with the slave economy grew stronger, Wilder said. He noted there were 18 new colleges established between 1783 and 1800.
School trustees, presidents and leaders were clamoring for money from people who owned slaves, sold slaves and benefitted from slaves, especially those benefactors from the South.
Wilder cited an example of John “Jacky” Custis moving onto the campus of King’s College, which became Columbia University, with his personal slave in tow. Custis was the stepson of General George Washington and the college did everything it could to cater to the family, Wilder said, in an effort to gain favor with the wealthy planter class.
Princeton and other colleges also lobbied hard for southern men to come to school in the North and increased their relationships with those benefitting directly from the slave economy, he said.
William & Mary, the oldest southern college and second oldest college in the country, had trouble attracting students from its home of Virginia, in part because of aggressive recruiting by northern schools. Wilder noted that William & Mary promoted the evangelism of Native Americans to help with fundraising in Europe.
Register said Wilder’s historical insights were important in positioning Sewanee in context.
“In talking about the central importance of slavery to the development of colleges and academies after the American Revolution, Dr. Wilder placed Sewanee’s own history in the stream of higher education development in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries,” Register said. “Our history is distinctive in important ways, but at the same time, as his lecture made clear, the solid foundation of the slave-based global economy of that period accounted for the dynamic growth of institutions from New England through the Mid-Atlantic to the Cumberland Plateau in 1856-1857, when the idea of a ‘Southern University’ took form and won the support of the South’s wealthiest planters and financiers—the billionaires of that day.”
For more information on the Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation, visit sewanee.edu/sewanee-slavery.