Professor Craig Wilder spoke about his work to uncover the connection of higher education to the slave economy on April 12 at the opening ceremony for the Slavery, Colonial, and Their Legacies project at The Tufts Project. The event was co-sponsored by the Center for the Humanities at Tufts, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and the Provost’s Office.
Today’s lecture is part of a larger effort to study the history and permanence of slavery and colonialism [effects] about higher education across America,” University President Anthony Monaco said in his foreword. “This work is challenging but necessary as a step in our university-wide commitment to becoming an anti-racist institution.”
Wilder is the Barton L. Wheeler Professor of History at MIT and the author of multiple books, including his most recent in 2013, “Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Turbulent History of America’s Universities.”
“He is a historian of American institutions and ideas,” said Caroline Jenco, dean and interim senior vice president. “His work has had a really profound impact on higher education, popular culture…scholarship, history, and society as a whole while challenging our understanding of how elite institutions are built.”
Wilder began his talk, “The Knickerbocker Renaissance: Slavery and Education,” by telling the story of how the education system in Flatbush, New York, was able to thrive due to the expansion of slavery during the 17th and 18th centuries.
“The rise of the African slave trade and the spread of agricultural slavery led to the integration of regional and domestic markets, transforming primary and advanced education in the northern colonies,” Wilder said. “Wealth from the slave economy settled, at last, the early British-American colleges…and set in motion a great expansion of higher education in its wake.”
Wilder stated that Erasmus Hall, in New York City, was founded in Flatbush, a town with a large enslaved population. He said the census of 1786, taken after the first meeting of the founders of Erasmus, found that 46% of the population of Flatbush was enslaved. Wilder called Flatbush the “center of gravity” of New York’s slave economy and, by extension, the center of the slave economy of the entire Northeast.
“The key sites in the development of American slavery were also, in fact, key sites in the history of American education,” Wilder said. “The trustees of the Erasmus Charter owned more than 100 human beings, including not less than a quarter of all blacks in the city, and came from the most prominent slaveholding families of Kings County and the state.”
Wilder explained that the colleges and academies depended on the slave economy in more ways than is commonly believed.
“In other words,” he said, “the presence of slaves on college campuses is an evocative but misleading measure of the academies’ reliance on slavery.” “Few unions actually rival the intimacy of slavery and education.”
After Wilder delivered his prepared remarks, there was a question-and-answer section led by Kendra Field and Kerry Greenidge, professors of history and ethnicity, colonialism, and diaspora studies. Field and Greenidge founded the African American Track Project at Tufts and are co-directors of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy. Field and Greenidge took turns asking Wilder questions about his work and its implications for universities such as Tufts and MIT.
In response to a question about how the course of research has changed over time, Wilder said his recent work has grown out of questions about why some minorities, such as Native Americans, are allowed to attend certain universities before others, namely black Americans.
“[My findings] He suggested, in fact, that the colleges had a kind of role in shaping racial civilization that I hadn’t thought of before,” Wilder said. “It wasn’t these innocent institutions that I sat in the background and just noticed, but they were actively participating in shaping racial culture.”
Wilder was also asked about challenging the myths of racial progression that often surround universities’ founding.
“MIT has enveloped itself in a kind of abolitionist myth: that it was founded in Boston long after slavery had ended, and, therefore, was indeed an abolitionist school,” he said. “It would be hard for us to have more ties to slavery. We were founded by a Virginia slave owner who spent most of his career as a professor… [and] As a slaveholder he employed, in effect, an enslaved man in his research.”
He also spoke of the deep relations of the field of engineering with slavery.
“The great engineering project of the eighteenth century is the slave ship,” Wilder said. The history of engineering has always been a history of slavery, and so we struggle with that. “
Field, Greenidge, and Wilder conclude by discussing the important role students play in revealing the ethnic history of their universities.
“For 20 years, student activism … has forced universities to grapple with their pasts,” Wilder said. “From Georgetown to Brown to MIT, now, student activism has been transformative.”
In addition to the activity, he spoke of the large role university research plays in his work and the strength of students seeking their own institutions.
“[One reason I emphasized undergraduate research] It is purely political. “It’s hard to argue against Williams students studying Williams history in favor of Williams,” said Wilder. “If you don’t like that idea, I dare you to say it out loud.”