Five Good Books about Colleges and Slavery: A Starting Point


Colleges and universities across the United States (indeed, around the world) are thinking deeply about their own historical entanglements with slavery. Enslaved labor and the wealth derived from slavery played major roles in the founding and success of higher education institutions throughout the nation. These histories continue to haunt current debates about reparations, legacy admissions, contested curricula, campus memorials, campus protests, real estate development, and more.

To help ground some of the current debates, we’ve put together a short list of recommended books about slavery and the university with the help of David Blight and Michelle Zacks from the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale. (Blight is also the director of the CIC Legacies of American Slavery initiative. However, this list is a collective effort of the entire Legacies project team.) The books are listed alphabetically by author. The “purchase” buttons are for convenience only—we don’t make a penny of commission on sales.

There is a growing bibliography of books, articles, and institutional reports devoted to the topic, so this is just a starting place. We hope it will be especially useful to anyone who wants to explore and address the legacies of slavery on their own college or university campus.

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Alfred L. Brophy, University, Court, and Slave: Pro-Slavery Thought in Southern Colleges and Courts and the Coming of the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 2016). PURCHASE

From the publisher: University, Court, and Slave links southern schools to proslavery thought and connects to current interest in universities and race and links southern academics to the increasing extremism of southern politics and law and all of those to the secession movement. Brophy shows the origins of the empirical and historical jurisprudence in the controversy over slavery and shows how slavery shaped southern jurisprudence.”

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Leslie M. Harris, James T. Campbell, and Alfred L. Brophy, eds., Slavery and the University: Histories and Legacies (University of Georgia Press, 2019). PURCHASE

From the Publisher: “Slavery and the University is the first edited collection of scholarly essays devoted solely to the histories and legacies of this subject on North American campuses and in their Atlantic contexts. Gathering together contributions from scholars, activists, and administrators, the volume combines two broad bodies of work: (1) historically based interdisciplinary research on the presence of slavery at higher education institutions in terms of the development of proslavery and antislavery thought and the use of slave labor; and (2) analysis on the ways in which the legacies of slavery in institutions of higher education continued in the post-Civil War era to the present day.”

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Sharon Stein, Unsettling the University: Confronting the Colonial Foundations of US Higher Education (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2022). PURCHASE

From the Publisher:Unsettling the University invites readers to confront universities’ historical and ongoing complicity in colonial violence; to reckon with how the past has shaped contemporary challenges at institutions of higher education; and to accept responsibility for redressing harm and repairing relationships in order to reimagine a future for higher education rooted in social and ecological accountability.”

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Rhondda Robinson Thomas, Call My Name, Clemson: Documenting the Black Experience in an American University Community (‎University of Iowa Press, 2020). PURCHASE

From the Publisher: “This book traces ‘Call My Name: African Americans in Early Clemson University History,’ a Clemson English professor’s public history project that helped convince the university to reexamine and reconceptualize the institution’s complete and complex story from the origins of its land as Cherokee territory to its transformation into an increasingly diverse higher-education institution in the twenty-first century. Threading together scenes of communal history and conversation, student protests, white supremacist terrorism, and personal and institutional reckoning with Clemson’s past, this story helps us better understand the inextricable link between the history and legacies of slavery and the development of higher education institutions in America.”

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Craig Steven Wilder, Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities (Bloomsbury Press, 2013). PURCHASE

If you are going to read just one book on the subject, read this one!

From the Publisher: “In Ebony and Ivy, Craig Steven Wilder lays bare uncomfortable truths about race, slavery, and the American academy. Many of America’s revered colleges and universities—from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton to Rutgers, Williams College, and UNC—were soaked in the sweat, the tears, and sometimes the blood of people of color. The earliest academies proclaimed their mission to Christianize the savages of North America, and played a key role in white conquest. Later, the slave economy and higher education grew up together, each nurturing the other. Slavery funded colleges, built campuses, and paid the wages of professors. Enslaved Americans waited on faculty and students; academic leaders aggressively courted the support of slave owners and slave traders. Significantly, as Wilder shows, our leading universities, dependent on human bondage, became breeding grounds for the racist ideas that sustained them.

Some Additional Resources

This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, just a starting place. Here are a few other helpful resources to start exploring the relationship between slavery and America’s institutions of higher learning:

Universities Studying Slavery (USS) is a consortium of over 90 different colleges and universities around the world, dedicated to sharing research and best practices for addressing the legacies of slavery on their campuses. Hilary N. Green (University of Alabama) has curated a extensive bibliography for USS of archival sources, books, articles, institutional reports, etc. related to slavery and higher education.

The Legacies of American Slavery Resource Database: Our own resource database aims to be a one-stop shop for all resources about the legacies of slavery at small and mid-sized independent colleges and universities. It’s constantly being updated with new content from across the membership of the Council of Independent Colleges. We’re always looking for new contributors!

Finally, here are a few of the institutional reports on slavery prepared by CIC member institutions: Elon University, Furman University, Queens University of Charlotte, Sewanee: University of the South, Washington & Lee University.