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- Oct 2021
To date, there is no single accounting of how much money flowed from the slave economy into coffers of American higher education. But Wilder says most American colleges founded before the Civil War relied on money derived from slavery. He suspects that many institutions are reluctant to examine this past. "There's not a lot of upside for them. You know these aren't great fundraising stories," Wilder says. Some people say that institutions must do more than make apologies and rename buildings. They insist that scholarships and other forms of monetary reparations are due. And others argue that whatever colleges and universities are doing to acknowledge their slave-holding past — a campus memorial to slaves, for example — is motivated by public relations and does nothing to ameliorate the legacy of slavery and systemic inequality. Brown University was the first to confront its ties to slavery in a major way. In 2003, Brown president Ruth Simmons appointed a commission to investigate. "What better way to teach our students about ethical conduct than to show ourselves to be open to the truth, and to tell the full story?" she says.
This is important research to do so as not to conveniently forget the past. If all were equal today, that would have happened as the proper outcome of proactive, widespread and impactful recognition of the injustice of the past. Inequality has persisted, transmuted into structural inequality, especially manifesting in economic legacy of inherited wealth. It could be interpreted as unconducive for fundraising, but so can opaqueness of a proactive strategy.
"The story of the American college is largely the story of the rise of the slave economy in the Atlantic world," says Craig Steven Wilder, a historian at MIT and author of "Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America's Universities."
In this way, the past seeps into the present. This is a literal example of the legacy of structural inequality.