Craig Steven Wilder, a professor of history at MIT and a leading historian of race in America, delivered the annual John Brown Russwurm Lecture March 31, 2015, in Main Lounge, Moulton Union. The following evening, he participated in a live-streamed book talk on his book, Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery and the Troubled History of America’s Universities. Associate Professor of English and Africana Studies Tess Chakkalakal moderated the public book talk, and questions emailed from those live-streaming the conversation were fielded during the chat.
In his Russworm lecture, Wilder examined the contrasting figures of “the matriculating Indian” and “the uneducable Negro” to explore the limits on access to higher education in the second half of the 18th century.
Looking closely at the experiences of two friends — the Reverend Samson Occom, a member of the Mohegan nation who became a Presbyterian minister, and poet Phillis Wheatley, the first African-American woman to be published — Wilder demonstrated how illusory were even the modest hopes of education held by Native and enslaved Americans.
Though hailed by well-wishers as possessors of exceptional talents, Occum and Wheatley could find no institutional structures that would support them in intellectual, literary, or religious pursuits.
This lecture stems from Wilder’s important and widely reviewed new study, Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, where he argues that many of America’s revered colleges and universities were soaked in the sweat, the tears, and sometimes the blood of people of color.
Wilder is a senior fellow at the Bard Prison Initiative, where he has served as a guest lecturer, commencement speaker, academic advisor, and visiting professor.
For more than a decade, this innovative program has given hundreds of men and women the opportunity to acquire a college education during their incarcerations in the New York State prison system.
He has advised and appeared in numerous historical documentaries, including the celebrated Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon film, The Central Park Five; Kelly Anderson’s highly praised exploration of gentrification, My Brooklyn; the History Channel’s F.D.R.: A Presidency Revealed; and Ric Burn’s award-winning PBS series, New York: A Documentary History.
Named after the first African-American graduate of Bowdoin College (class of 1826), the John Brown Russwurm lecture series explores “the legacy and status of Black Americans.” Notable speakers include Robert Levine, Lani Guinier, Carl Stokes, Vernon Jordan, Shirley Chisholm, Bayard Rustin, Benjamin Hooks, and Julian Bond, among others.