A Community Reckoning with Slavery and Its Legacies
The findings of this committee—summarized in this introduction and detailed in the pages that follow—not only reveal a chasm between the Harvard of the past and of the present but also point toward the work we must still undertake to live up to our highest ideals. Today, Harvard University enrolls a racially diverse student body;Go to footnote 7 detail champions race-conscious admissions policies in our courts of law;Go to footnote 8 detail supports “inclusive excellence;”Go to footnote 9 detail employs a faculty that includes renowned scholars of African descent and a celebrated department of African and African American studies;Go to footnote 10 detail hosts a Native American Program that supports Native students and distinguished Native American faculty;Go to footnote 11 detail and embraces reckoning with its past. Yet legacies of slavery persist, and our community, working together, has the opportunity to shape a better future.
Harvard’s 29th president, Lawrence S. Bacow, established the Presidential Initiative on Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery in 2019, appointed a committee representative of all the University’s schools, and charged this group with diving deep into our history and its relationship to the present. President Bacow asked the committee to “give additional dimension to our understanding of the impact of slavery” at Harvard. This work, he said, should “have a strong grounding in rigorous research and critical perspectives” that “will inform … our understanding of facts,” as well as “how we might address the ramifications of what we learn.” President Bacow also asked the committee to “concentrate on connections, impact, and contributions that are specific to our Harvard community” and “provide opportunities to convene academic events, activities, and conversations that will encourage our broader University community to think seriously and rigorously about the continuing impact and legacy of slavery in 2019 and beyond.”Go to footnote 12 detail
This charge built on earlier work. In 2016, Drew Gilpin Faust, the University’s 28th president, publicly acknowledged that “Harvard was directly complicit in America’s system of racial bondage from the College’s earliest days in the 17th century until slavery in Massachusetts ended in 1783, and Harvard continued to be indirectly involved through extensive financial and other ties to the slave South up to the time of emancipation.”Go to footnote 13 detail She established a committee on the University and slaveryGo to footnote 14 detail that, with the aid of the researcher Caitlin Galante DeAngelis (PhD 2014), conducted a preliminary investigation upon which this report builds. These initial efforts included, in 2016, a public ceremony in which then-President Faust and the late civil rights leader US Congressman John Lewis unveiled a plaque affixed to Wadsworth House in Harvard Yard that acknowledges the unfree labor of four enslaved people—Titus, Venus, Juba, and Bilhah—who lived there and worked for two Harvard presidents and their families.Go to footnote 15 detail A 2017 conference at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, organized at Faust’s suggestion with the support of then–Radcliffe Dean Lizabeth Cohen, brought together prominent thinkers about universities and slavery from around the country.Go to footnote 16 detail
The work of excavating and confronting the truths that this committee now discloses has been, and continues to be, a community-wide endeavor. Whereas prior histories of Harvard scarcely mentioned the University’s ties to slavery,Go to footnote 17 detail Harvard scholars and students have worked assiduously in recent years to reveal painful truths. Beginning in 2007, Laird Bell Professor of History Sven Beckert and his undergraduate students began investigating Harvard’s ties to slavery in a multiyear series of research seminars, releasing a report on their findings in 2011.Go to footnote 18 detail At Harvard Law School in 2008, Royall Professor of Law Janet Halley explored the history of slave-owning colonial benefactor Isaac Royall Jr.,Go to footnote 19 detail sharing knowledge that helped spur student protests decrying the Law School’s shield, which featured the Royall family crest.Go to footnote 20 detail Martha Minow, 300th Anniversary University Professor and then-dean of Harvard Law School, established a committee that recommended the retiring of the shield.Go to footnote 21 detail In 2017, Harvard Law School dedicated a memorial on the School’s campus to the enslaved people whose labor generated Royall’s wealth.Go to footnote 22 detail In 2020, Harvard Medical School students petitioned against the “Oliver Wendell Holmes” academic society because of namesake Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.’s role in the expulsion of Black students in 1850 and his promotion of so-called race science.Go to footnote 23 detail Upon the recommendation of a faculty subcommittee and with the approval of Dean George Q. Daley, the society was renamed for William Augustus Hinton (SB 1905; MD 1912), a clinical professor of bacteriology and immunology at HMS and the first Black full professor at Harvard.Go to footnote 24 detail
Moreover, as this committee conducted its work, many Harvard alumni engaged with it, including some with family connections to slavery and others who were present on campus during the era of segregation, bearing witness to parts of the history documented in this report. With support from the Presidential Initiative, Harvard students from multiple schools and departments also aided and augmented our efforts through research and the production of poetry and dramatic art.Go to footnote 25 detail
And as Harvard embarks on reparative efforts to address the University’s entanglements with slavery, discussed below, the committee hopes and expects that our community will continue to participate in this reckoning.