Panel Discusses History of Slavery in Relation to American Universities

By Abby Wargo
Senior Writer

Airlee Johnson, a Chestertown native and a director of the Kent County Historical Society, opened with a warning: “Here’s a precaution: do not start reading this book at 9 o’clock at night,” she said.

On Sept. 28 and 29, Craig Steven Wilder, the author of “Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities,” came to Washington College and opened a discussion on how the nation’s top universities were built on slave labor, and how these collegiate racial divides persist.

Patrick Nugent, deputy director of the C.V. Starr Center for the American Experience, said of the book’s conclusion, “American colleges assumed not just a dependent relationship, but a predatory relationship with the institution of slavery.”

Nugent said that the purpose of the discussion was to focus on truth telling through seeking and speaking the truth about colleges involved in slavery.

On Sept. 28, Wilder held a discussion during which he read passages from his book and began exploring the ideas in it. The following morning in Hynson Lounge, he, along with several panelists, continued the discussion from the day before.

Sophomore Isaiah Reese and Ruth Shoge, dean of Academic & Library Technology, take part in a discussion about Craig Steven Wilder's book "Ebony and Ivy" in Hynson Lounge on Sept. 29.
Sophomore Isaiah Reese and Ruth Shoge, dean of Academic & Library Technology, take part in a discussion about Craig Steven Wilder’s book “Ebony and Ivy” in Hynson Lounge on Sept. 29.

The panelists ranged from WC professors, to students, to community members.

Unlike the discussion the evening before, the panelists were able to give their thoughts and reactions to the book and engage in a discussion with the audience. Many related to it in a personal way.

Dr. Elena Deanda, associate professor of Spanish and director of the black studies program remarked on the power of memory, and how easy it is to banish it.

“As a foreigner, when I came to the United States, I believed it was this great [thing], that education was like the pinnacle of civilization. Your idea of a higher education normally brings you to the U.S. and to these great schools, and how we completely forget the foundations that Professor Wilder unearthed in a very itchy way for many of us…that power of oblivion that we have,” she said.

Dr. Deanda talked about the traumas of racial injustice that have occurred on college campuses, and how education can not only heal, but also challenge the foundations of the institutions.

“Knowledge is uncontrolled…knowledge [is] the means to emancipate myself,” she said.

Johnson noted, “the colonists had it going on,” she said. “They had free labor. When you have free labor, just think of how far you can go in life. They had an endless supply of free labor. How can you have all that and just ignore where you got [it] from?”

Johnson grew up in Chestertown and attended a segregated high school. She moved away in 1966 after she graduated, and when she returned in 2002 to retire, she found that it was just as segregated as when she left.

“I was really saddened by that, so I decided that everything that I do while I’m here will be towards bringing the races together,” she said.

To achieve this, one of the things she has worked on with the Historical Society is Legacy Day, which focuses on the often-overlooked cultural history of Kent County.

Ruth Shoge, Sumner Hall board member and dean of Academic & Library Technology, inserted herself into Wilder’s narrative. Through her position at WC and as an African-American Columbia University alumnus, she was able to relate more personally to the different aspects in the book.

“It was overwhelming, that in this book I can trace my whole life story,” she said.

Sophomore Isaiah Reese said he wasn’t aware of the extent of slavery’s influence on the American collegiate system until he read Wilder’s book.

“I was just like, wow. And I’m pretty sure that other students aren’t aware of this as well,” he said. “Being an African-American student, though, I can honestly say it wasn’t shocking.”

He added that in discussing slavery, the term slave becomes watered down, and that people can often forget that slaves were people.

“That wasn’t just a slave, that was a human. That was a mother, a father, a sister, a brother, a community…it hit me in a personal sense,” he said.

Along with the panel, Wilder was consulted on his own thoughts about “Ebony and Ivy,” and how it related to WC. William Smith, the founder of the College, came up several times during Wilder’s research on the book.

“[The book] is not about taking our campuses and designing a peculiar burden for them, it’s about opening a discussion on campus that actually liberates all of us to really think about how a 21st century college presents itself to the world, and how we deal with the facts of the past…the culprit and the solution are somewhat the same,” he said.

Wilder’s goal during the panel was to explore how we as a college can become “stronger and more unified” by addressing the uncomfortable subjects that have been ignored for so long, he said.

“We’re dealing with this now because we didn’t deal with it in the 1980s, or the 1960s, or the 1940s, or the 1930s,” he said.

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