About the Initiative

About the Initiative

stone roofline with repeating motif of Harvard shield

Harvard’s shield is a repeated motif along the roofline of Widener Library. The library’s design was long credited to Horace Trumbauer, a prominent architect whose firm was contracted to create the library. In fact, credit rightly belongs to the firm’s chief designer, Julian F. Abele, the first African American student admitted to the Department of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. Photo by Stephanie Mitchell

The Presidential Initiative on Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery, announced by Harvard President Larry Bacow in November of 2019 and anchored at Harvard Radcliffe Institute, is an effort to understand and address the enduring legacy of slavery within our University community.

The initiative’s first phase, which began in December 2019 and concluded in April 2022 with the release of the Report of the Presidential Committee on Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery, was an effort to uncover Harvard's past—the University’s links to slavery. This phase was guided by a committee of distinguished faculty from across Harvard, chaired by Radcliffe Dean Tomiko Brown-Nagin.

Sara Bleich, the University’s inaugural vice provost for special projects, leads the implementation of the recommendations from the report of the Presidential Committee on Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery. These efforts build on groundwork laid by the group convened by Martha Minow, the 300th Anniversary University Professor.

Welcome, and a Call to Action

Dean Tomiko Brown-Nagin: “We cannot dismantle what we do not understand, and we cannot understand the contemporary injustice we face unless we reckon honestly with our history.”

More from Dean Brown-Nagin
Tomiko Brown Nagin Radcliffe By Kris Snibbe Harvard Staff Photographer

In its first phase, the committee’s work was guided by several principles, including:

  • a strong grounding in rigorous research;
  • a focus on connections, impact, and contributions that are specific to our Harvard community; and
  • investment in opportunities to convene our broader University community to examine the impact and legacy of slavery in the present.

This built on years of important work, beginning with undergraduate seminars on Harvard and slavery taught by Sven Beckert—a member of the committee—and including several significant steps taken under the leadership of Harvard President Emerita Drew Gilpin Faust, such as:

  • the retirement of the Harvard Law School shield, which contained elements of the slave-owning Royall family’s crest, on the recommendation of a faculty committee established by Dean Martha Minow in response to student activism on campus;
  • memorials commemorating the lives and contributions of enslaved individuals installed at Wadsworth House and Harvard Law School;
  • a faculty committee convened by President Faust, which initiated research on the University’s historical ties to slavery through work with the Harvard Archives and other University collections;
  • the University hosting and joining academic collaborations and conferences with peers from across higher education; and
  • numerous classes, seminars, exhibitions, performances, and discussions that took place across our campus.

Key Areas of Inquiry

Four subcommittees, each chaired by members of the Presidential Committee on Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery, drove the initiative’s initial efforts in key areas, including contemporary campus life and community partnerships; curriculum; links to Antigua and other Caribbean nations; and the history of race, medicine, and the sciences.

Campus and community, led by Stephen Gray, Tiya Miles, and Dan Smith, focused on engaging our community—on campus and off—in a number of meaningful ways, including by developing a tour that explores the history of enslavement on and around campus. The subcommittee also launched a study, led by Professor Anthony A. Jack and developed with the committee member William Julius Wilson, which examined the contemporary experiences at Harvard of African American students descended from enslaved people as they coped with the confluence of a racial reckoning, public health crisis, and economic distress.

Curriculum, led by Meira Levinson and Martha Minow, surveyed the courses that already exist at Harvard and identified new ways to support student engagement with legacies of slavery through new content, including a short documentary film, case studies, courses, and more.

Antigua and the Caribbean, led by Sven Beckert and Annette Gordon-Reed, examined Harvard’s connections to sugar plantations in the Caribbean and explored opportunities to engage stakeholders—including university students and faculty—in Antigua and other Caribbean nations with historic Harvard links.

Medical education and experimentation, led by the late Paul Farmer (1959–2022) and Evelynn Hammonds, considered legacies of slavery in the sciences and examined Harvard museum collections connected to slavery in order to consider how best to reckon with problematic artifacts. Hammonds also chairs the University’s Steering Committee on Human Remains in Harvard Collections.

iron fence decorated with Harvard shield

Report of the Presidential Committee on Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery

Harvard’s motto, Veritas, inscribed on gates, doorways, and sculptures all over campus, demands of us truth. This report, prepared by the Presidential Committee on Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery, advances our quest for truth through scholarship about the University’s historic ties to slavery—direct, financial, and intellectual.

Read the Report

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