Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery Student Grant Program

From 2020 to 2023, the Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery (H&LS) Student Grant Program provided $1,500 stipends per project to support the research and creative work of more than 50 Harvard undergraduate and graduate students engaged in independent research on topics related to Harvard and the legacy of slavery, broadly defined.

H&LS grants supported a wide range of projects including works of art, multimedia projects, and other creative endeavors as well as traditional research undertakings with the goal of encouraging engagement with the initiative from a wide range of perspectives and the examination of critical topics including, but not limited to:

  • Harvard, legacies of slavery, campus life, and the Boston-Cambridge community; 
  • legacies of slavery and the sciences at Harvard;  
  • legacies of slavery in Harvard museums and archives; and 
  • Harvard and legacies of slavery in the context of Caribbean nations.

Grant recipients were part of a student cohort and received mentoring and support from Harvard Radcliffe Institute staff and faculty members and from each other.

Student Projects

Aabid Allibhai (HLS, GSAS), in summer 2021, researched the life and legacy of Belinda Sutton, one of the hundreds of enslaved people whose wealth founded Harvard Law School. Through a close study of Sutton's life, Allibhai centered the narratives of enslaved individuals and contributed to a new history of abolition in Massachusetts. In fall 2022, he returned to tell the story of Quau, a man enslaved in Antigua by the Royall family.

Clara Amenyo (GSD), Elifmina Mizrahi (GSD), and Thandi Nyambose (GSD), in fall 2020, illuminated the historical connections between the textile cities of the Merrimack Valley, Harvard University, and the “Cotton Kingdom” of the South. The Lowell and Lawrence families of Boston, who had extensive ties to Harvard, helped establish the 19th-century industrial cities that bear their names. Using archival source documents, the project identified buildings and other physical spaces on the Harvard campus funded by wealth that can be traced to the textile mills of Lowell and Lawrence and, through them, back to Southern cotton plantations.

Busola Banjoh (COL), in spring 2022, analyzed how Harvard recognized its first African American undergraduate students, Theodore Greener and Alberta Scott, and its impact. Banjoh examined the struggles and inequity Greener and Scott faced with the ways in which Harvard memorialized their stories in public memory.

Daniel Barcia (HLS, HBS), in summer 2020, built on the research collected through his thesis to explore Harvard’s historical relationship with slavery. As an undergraduate history student, Barcia produced a detailed narrative of an 1835 uprising of enslaved people in Florida. This research shed light on the individual actors involved in the conflict. Barcia focused specifically on the Harvard graduate Benjamin A. Putnam (AB 1823, AM 1852)—the namesake of a county in northeast Florida—and his role as a local slaveholder and active military commander in repressing the 1835 rebellion. 

Phoebe Braithwaite (GSAS), in spring 2021, addressed the connections between Caribbean plantation slavery and Harvard’s founding through the lens of three key families: the Vassals, Royalls, and Thorndikes. The project explored these bloodlines to understand the history and financial underpinnings of the university, along with the circulation and inheritance of elite status to better understand its present operations. ‘Bloodlines’ developed the understanding of how two institutions – slavery and the family – built upon and reinforced each other, while turning Harvard into the place it is today.

Donald “Field” Brown (GSAS), in summer 2022, studied how Black students who attended Harvard Summer School subversively used Harvard's initiatives against the wishes of its founders to combat the legacy of slavery with their groundbreaking research.

Gianna Cacciatore (HDS), in summer 2021, illuminated the stories behind four enslaved people—Betty, Ann, Cambridge, and Bristol—who rest in one of Boston’s oldest cemeteries, Dorchester’s North Burying Ground. Located in Upham’s Corner, a historic Black cultural center in the neighborhood, the cemetery also houses the graves of Isaac Royall Sr., the earliest endower of Harvard Law School, colonial governor William Stoughton, for whom Harvard’s first-year dorm is named, and Richard Mather, sire to the Mather House Mathers. While the Royall graves are marked by a named path, and the Stoughton and Mather graves are marked by monuments (cracked and faded, but elaborate nonetheless), no special markers adorn the neglected graves of the enslaved people who rest there. 

Darien Carr (GSD) and Avi Robinson (GSD), in summer 2020, researched and mapped the sales of bricks produced by prisoners leased to companies such as the Atlanta-based Chattahoochee Brick Company and identified how the institution of Harvard has benefited from this kind of forced labor. Prisoners working for the Chattahoochee Brick Company produced almost 33 million bricks between 1906 and 1907—bricks that are likely still in use today. This project investigated the relationships between convict labor, the establishment of institutions, and the beginnings of the prison industrial complex. Furthermore, it was used to generate a series of speculative concepts to memorialize the use of these bricks on campus.

Alexandre Chaumette (COL), in summer 2020, investigated Harvard’s role in creating and perpetuating racial disparities in asthma by examining the overt and covert ways in which research and teaching at Harvard may have contributed to disproportionate disease burdens on communities of color. Motivated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the modern landscape of racial health disparities in the United States, this work contextualized the institutional influence of modern disease distributions. 

Bettie Closs (COL), in fall 2021, constructed a 1790s-inspired dress incorporating symbolic elements of the shipbuilding and textile industries. This bold and provocative piece highlights the industries that allowed the Boston Brahmin to determine the future of America, specifically whose wealth were built on slavery. This powerful piece expands the lens to include the human cost and visually subverts the historical retconning of Bostonian and Massachusetts history as being completely driven by logic and abolitionism.

Isabel Cole (COL), in summer 2020, investigated the role of slavery in the development of various economic tools utilized in undergraduate economics courses at Harvard. The project focused on identifying modern economic concepts, such as labor productivity growth, with origins in the labor management of 19th-century cotton plantations and the credit structure of the interstate slave trade. Focused on Harvard as a case study, Cole examined the prevalence of these historically significant tools and themes in the economics curriculum and generated a set of recommendations for addressing and contextualizing their ties to slavery. By understanding the role of slavery in the development of contemporary educational material, Cole’s work acknowledged its impact on the modern American economy and moved toward providing a more historically and ethically informed study of economics at Harvard. 

Bennett Comerford (GSAS), in summer 2021, investigated how frequently and in what ways histories of slavery have been taught in Harvard University’s Department of History from its inception to the present. This accounting for the curricular history of how and how frequently slavery or an acknowledgment of Harvard’s own complicity in and benefit from slavery has been treated as a subject of significance in Harvard’s history courses will serve as an important resource for understanding the intersections between slavery and pedagogy.

Jarrett Drake (GSAS), in summer 2020, examined Harvard’s ties to the modern prison industry through the lens of the foundational relationship between enslavement and incarceration. His research produced a mixed artistic and academic project, “Crimson Cash,” that mapped the ways in which Harvard alumni, donors, and other affiliates are connected to the leadership structures of the largest companies in the prison-industrial complex.

Braden & Peirce Ellis (COL), in fall 2022, used their backgrounds in classically trained music to explore a cadre of sounds to give musical voice to the life and experiences of Titus, the enslaved black man owned by Harvard’s eighth president, Benjamin Wadsworth. 

LyLena Estabine (COL), in fall 2022, created a lyrical music album, The Harvard Legacy of Slavery Album, which allows listeners to immerse themselves in a composition that combines modern-day sounds, instrumental music, historical text, and quotes from Black Harvard students and faculty. 

Stacey Fabo (COL), in summer 2021, shed light on Henry Lee Higginson’s use of sharecroppers’ exploited labor to fund the 1899 construction of the Barker Center. Her research focused on the practices of Higginson’s plantation and his treatment of the enslaved Black people. Fabo’s project culminated in an expression of her feelings and experiences on navigating Harvard as a Black woman through poetry. In spring 2022, she returned for a second semester to build on research with the continued focus on exploring the practices of Higginson’s plantation.

Christian Gines (COL), in fall 2022, created a poetry and visual arts project that commemorated the Harvard Legacy of Slavery report using Black out poetry, and Black annotation and redaction.

Winona Guo (COL), in summer 2020, researched the role of prison divestment in facing Harvard University’s legacy of slavery. More broadly, she explored the question of how to institutionalize racial equity in higher education.

Catherine (Cat) Huang (GSE), in spring 2022, analyzed current modes of memorializing slavery at Harvard and proposed a new monument be embedded within Harvard’s physical campus. Huang hoped to encourage Harvard to reimagine the way in which memorials can create space for community healing and education.

Shandra Jones (GSE, GSAS), in fall 2021, built on a current, randomized, and longitudinal pilot study, “Identity Project Goes to College.” This study investigated a new model of post-secondary success, incorporating ethnic-racial identity development promoting positive, adaptive mental health and connections for Harvard students, through a series of workshops with a curriculum intervention group.

Hana Kiros (COL), in summer 2022, excavated Harvard's ties to the private prison industry through an investigative journalism piece.

Heidi Lai (COL), in summer 2021, researched the history of the Porcellian Club at Harvard and the two generations of Black stewards that served the Club in the 19th century, most notably George Washington Lewis. Through her research, Lai explored the experience of Black skilled workers and how they were perceived while present in historically white elite spaces.

Sarah Mallory (GSAS), in fall 2020, coordinated a conference that examined the role of museums in interpreting the legacy of the Dutch transatlantic slave trade. Alongside colleagues from the Harvard Art Museums, the Harvard Department of History of Art and Architecture, and the Center for Netherlandish Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, she explored how art museums could engage with the concepts of reparation, apology, reconciliation, and the future. With a special focus on the connection between the Dutch slave trade and the Harvard Art Museums’ collections, the conference brought together scholars and museum professionals from the Netherlands and the United States and considered how museum collections are themselves a legacy of the slave trade.

Damion Mannings (GSE), in fall 2022, researched the experiences of Black LGBTQIA+ students in STEM.

Kyra March (COL), in summer 2021, used archival materials, monuments, material objects, and newspaper articles to compare the ways in which abolitionists and authors Harriet Jacobs’s and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s lives have been recognized and preserved in the public’s memory. The project explored aspects of their identities, circumstances, and accomplishments that contributed to the unequal ways that their memories have been preserved and valued, specifically in relation to the houses and boarding houses they inhabited. In spring 2022, she returned for a second semester to transform a senior thesis on how Black women are underrepresented in historic preservation into a digital public history project.

Orlee Marini-Rapoport (COL), in summer 2020, built on past research conducted by Mather House administrators and students to provide additional context on the 1970 decision to name the House after Increase Mather, who was an enslaver. Her project explored what goes into a name, how Harvard makes such decisions, and offered recommendations for how, in future naming decisions, the University can both honor its past and accurately represent history.

Mary McNeil (GSAS), in summer 2020, expanded understandings of the University’s connections to the slave trade by tracing its financial links to the enslavement of American Indians. Her project examined Harvard’s connection to the colonial-era Native American slave trade between Massachusetts and the West Indies. Specifically, it determined the extent to which the financial contributions made to the University by John Hull and his daughter and son-in-law, Hannah and Samuel Sewall, were derived from the dispossession of Native lands and the sale of Wampanoag, Massachusett, Narragansett, Pequot, and Nipmuc people to the West Indies in the late 17th century.

Rayha McPherson (COL), in fall 2022, explored the development of the field of psychology within Harvard and its connections to the current treatment of Black mental health today.

Garry Mitchell (GSE), in spring 2021, created a carefully curated set of web pages to help students, staff, and faculty engage with the ethical tension of personal benefits from the legacy of slavery. These resources encouraged readers to think about their personal responsibility rather than merely focusing on institutional culpability. Materials included in this project highlighted the unique history of the enslavement of Indigenous peoples in Massachusetts, particularly as it related to Harvard as an institution.

Eve O'Connor (GSAS), in summer 2020, studied how slavery and capitalism conditioned Harvard’s expansion into a research university in the late 19th century, focused on Charles William Eliot’s 40-year presidency. Drawing from Eliot’s work on labor, science, engineering, literature, and history, this research explored the intellectual and curricular legacies of slavery at the University.

Ogechukwu Ogbogu (COL), in spring 2021, expanded on her investigation of James Marion Sims and the medical slavery of Black Women. By utilizing narrative and storytelling, the project explored the violence and modes of resistance created by Black enslaved Women that have been essential to the advancement of women's medicine. Further, she investigated the manners that Harvard has maintained these exploitive relations within its history, its historiography of these events, and the modern day. 

Suzannah Omonuk (HDS), in fall 2020, interrogated the ways history and art have centralized figures such as white slave masters and abolitionists, while the enslaved were often reduced to mere footnotes. In this project, she creatively told the story of Venus, an enslaved individual owned by Benjamin Wadsworth, Harvard’s eighth president, who led the University from 1725 to 1737. This spoken word poem, informed by research into the lives of enslaved individuals in New England in the 17th and 18th centuries, semi-fictionally and imaginatively gave Venus a voice and a face.

Meredith O’Toole (HGSE), in summer 2022, built upon previous research for a normative case study about Agassiz House, named after Elizabeth Cabot Cary Agassiz, co-founder and first president of Radcliffe College and wife of Harvard professor and polygenist, Louis Agassiz. Through her project, Meredith partnered with History Cambridge (formerly the Cambridge Historical Society) and Hidden Brookline to further research, document, and make known Elizabeth Cary Agassiz’s ties–as well as those of her relatives, namely Thomas H. Perkins–to institutions and individuals in the Cambridge, Brookline, and Greater Boston communities. Meredith used the outcomes of this research to digitally augment her Elizabeth Agassiz case study.

Nicole Piepenbrink (GSD), in spring 2022, explored churches with a historic designation in Cambridge and Greater Boston that obscured and concealed the history of slavery through multiscalar extraction by which she drew connections between geographies, spaces, and institutions. In summer 2022, she returned for a second semester to build on this research.

Cresa Pugh (GSAS), in spring 2022, investigated unexamined aspects of George Peabody’s economic and social life to understand the extent of his business dealings and involvement in the transatlantic slave trade and its impact on the founding of the Harvard Peabody Museum. 

Kiana Rawji (COL) & Cecilia Zhou (COL), in spring 2022, created an interactive, crowd-sourced art installation that reflects on themes of memory, identity, and the relationship between individuals and the institution at Harvard. 

Malachi Robinson (COL), in fall 2021, investigated the history of how the embodied legacies of the enslaved have grasped a social life on Harvard's campus. Relying on archival sources, he established a historical foundation in building a more vibrant Black social life for the descendants of the enslaved on this campus. 

Divya Saraf (GSD), in fall 2020, investigated historical anthropological photography held in the Harvard Art Museums and Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology archives focused on images of women. She compared the Zealy daguerreotypes of enslaved people, commissioned by Louis Agassiz, to portraits from colonial India and explored how to challenge historical narratives and transform archives by employing the tools of feminist and other critical frameworks.

Jack “Alex” White III (COL), in fall 2021, sought to address an archival silence by identifying slave narratives with print editions that are currently not housed in Harvard’s libraries. Alex then engaged the library administration in an effort to acquire all of the narratives identified in his research. 

Azmar Williams (GSAS), in summer 2022, examined both the short-term and long-term consequences of Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell's decision to ban black students from the University's freshman halls in the 1920s.