The Real Ivy League

All those posh American universities – Brown University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, and Yale University – are collectively known as the Ivy League. But why?

The usual explanation is “ivy” because of the green leafy cladding on the walls of these old institutions and “league” because of the sporting competitions played out between these eight institutions of academic excellence.


You can now visit the brand new Ivy League Story Waxwork Museum™ in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which has a completely different take on things.

Ivy League was a black slave in Missouri. In 1803 she began her own struggle for freedom. Ivy was determined to be educated despite being 53 years old and illiterate. She made the case with her master, the fabled plantation magnate Marshall Grudd. She begged him to allow her to gain an education. Despite the advice of his wife Martha, Grudd acceded to League’s wish.

“Go north, Ivy,” was Grudd’s parting message.

Her journey was long and arduous but after two years of walking barefoot, Ivy arrived in the Boston area.

She sat in the same location each day, a begging bowl beside her on the freezing winter sidewalk.

Curious, Professor Andrew McTavish approached her on the ninth day of her vigil.

“What brings you to these parts?”

“I want to learn.”

McTavish was mesmerized. He took her to his townhouse at once, fed her, allowed her to sleep for days and then began on his great mission, to turn Ivy League into a scholar of repute.

Many of McTavish’s friends distanced themselves, especially given the color of League’s skin, but others saw the bond that was forming between teacher and pupil and decided to lend a hand. Slowly a circle was built around Ivy and she began to shine.

After seven years, League was an expert in more fields than any of her professors.

“I will return to the south to stand up for my people,” she told McTavish once warm spring morn.

By the time she returned to Missouri, both the Grudds were dead but their son remembered Miss Ivy and greeted her warmly.

“Please allow me to use my time with you to stand up for the right to education for every American,” she famously requested from Alvin Grudd.

“How can I get in the way of progress?” he is said to have retorted.

Ivy League schools were created all across the south, giving black slaves the opportunity to be on equal footing with their white masters when it came to education. Eventually the professors in Cambridge heard of the wonders worked by their former pupil and together they decided to create a series of colleges around New England named for this remarkable woman.

The museum is a fascinating tableaux of League’s life and there’s a wonderful tearoom serving some of the south’s specialty foods right in the heart of Cambridge. Admission for African Americans is free, on production of an AfAm credit card.

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