Chapter Introduction and Findings
Download the report

Introduction and Findings

Harvard’s motto, Veritas, inscribed on gates, doorways, and sculptures all over campus, demands of us truth.⁠Go to footnote 1 detail 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.

Through research in the Harvard University Archives and in several Harvard libraries, including the Houghton Library and the Radcliffe Institute’s Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, as well as in collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, the Boston Athenaeum, the American Philosophical Society, the University of Michigan Library, and the New York Public Library Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, among other repositories, this report documents now incontestable truths: During the 17th and 18th centuries, the sale and trafficking of human beings—in slavery—and the industries rooted in the labor of enslaved women, men, and children were pervasive around the world, comprised a vital part of the New England economy, and powerfully shaped Harvard University. Harvard leaders, faculty, staff, and benefactors enslaved people, some of whom labored at the University;⁠Go to footnote 2 detail accrued wealth through the slave trade and slave labor; and defended the institution of slavery.⁠Go to footnote 3 detail

In documenting these truths, this report builds on the groundbreaking work of researchers at Harvard and other universities: In recent years, scholars have documented extensive relationships between American institutions of higher education and slavery.⁠Go to footnote 4 detail Indeed, a consortium of more than 80 institutions of higher education, called Universities Studying Slavery and based at the University of Virginia, is engaged in this work.⁠Go to footnote 5 detail We now officially and publicly—and with a steadfast commitment to truth, and to repair—add Harvard University to the long and growing list of American institutions of higher education, located in both the North and in the South, that are entangled with the history of slavery and its legacies.⁠Go to footnote 6 detail

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 plaque unveiled at Wadsworth House in 2016 acknowledges enslaved people known to have labored there for Harvard presidents: Titus and Venus, enslaved by Benjamin Wadsworth, and Juba and Bilhah, enslaved by Edward Holyoke. Rose Lincoln/Harvard University

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

As part of the Law School’s bicentennial observance in 2017, then-President Drew Gilpin Faust and Carl M. Loeb University Professor Annette Gordon-Reed, spurred by student protests, unveiled a memorial to the enslaved people whose labor made possible Isaac Royall Jr.’s foundational gift to the school. John Chase

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.

Slavery in the North

Context is vital to understanding the complicity of American institutions, including institutions of higher education such as Harvard, with slavery. This context reframes what many believe about slavery, and it belies a common myth.

The Robert Gould Shaw and Massachusetts 54th Regiment Memorial, which stands across the street from the Massachusetts State House along Boston’s Freedom Trail, commemorates the Harvard-educated Civil War colonel alongside the Black men under his command who were among the first to volunteer for the Union Army. Shaw and more than one-third of his men died in a failed assault on the Confederate Fort Wagner in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1863. Shaw is also honored in Harvard’s Memorial Hall. Matt Teuten, Courtesy NPS/Boston African American NHS

The story most often told about American slavery focuses on large plantations in the South, forced agricultural labor, and brutal auctions where enslaved people were sold “down the river.” New England is not, in general, a part of this narrative.⁠Go to footnote 26 detail The Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the City of Boston are, rather, remembered as the birthplace of the American Revolution, and they are typically associated with the antislavery moment. Massachusetts is thought to have been a hotbed of opposition to slavery, and so it was at critical junctures. The Commonwealth can rightly claim noted abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, David Walker, and US Senator Charles Sumner (AB 1830; LLB 1833) along with courageous soldiers who fought for the Union during the Civil War—including the famed 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, commanded by the Harvard alumnus Robert Gould Shaw (Class of 1860; posthumous AB 1873).

This conventional telling—focused on the region’s celebrated roles in the Revolutionary War, the abolitionist struggle, and the preservation of American nationhood during the Civil War—makes valor, social consciousness, and liberty the through lines in New England’s history. Resistance to tyranny in service of American democracy is an integral part of the region’s cultural identity. But history is rarely, if ever, so neat and linear; and reality complicates this incomplete, if popular, narrative.⁠Go to footnote 27 detail

This map of the Atlantic world, featured on the Boston Middle Passage Port Marker unveiled in 2021, illustrates New England’s role in the triangle trade in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, when New England provided food and raw materials to the plantation economies of the Caribbean and the American South in exchange for enslaved people and slave-produced goods. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Massachusetts Bay Colony also trafficked Indigenous captives, selling thousands of Native people from New England into slavery. Gary Walton/Courtesy of National Parks of Boston

In fact, slavery thrived in New England from its beginnings, and was a vital element of the colonial economy. Colonists first enslaved and sold Indigenous people, and they dispossessed and massacred Native peoples through war.⁠Go to footnote 28 detail They also enslaved Africans and played a key role in the Atlantic slave trade, building a thriving economy based on “an economic alliance with the sugar islands of the West Indies.”⁠Go to footnote 29 detail This trade involved the provision of food, fuel, and lumber produced in New England to plantations of the Caribbean, where those goods were exchanged for tobacco, coffee, and sugar produced by enslaved Africans—or for enslaved people themselves.⁠Go to footnote 30 detail “This effectively made Boston a slave society,” according to a leading historian of the region, “but one where most of the enslaved toiled elsewhere, sustaining the illusion of Boston in New England as an inclusive republic devoted to the common good.”⁠Go to footnote 31 detail By 1700, New Englanders had made at least 19 voyages to Africa and then to the West Indies, the chief route of the slave trade, as well as many more voyages between Massachusetts Bay and the Caribbean.⁠Go to footnote 32 detail

The Massachusetts Bay Colony’s Body of Liberties, written in 1641, made such exchanges lawful. The first legal code governing slavery in British North America, it prohibited “bond-slavery,” “unless it be of lawfull captives, taken in just warrs, and such strangers as willingly sell themselves, or are solde to us,” leading one historian to note, “the word ‘unless’ has seldom carried more baggage.”⁠Go to footnote 33 detail Even as it paid homage to the Magna Carta, the Body of Liberties permitted the buying, selling, and trading of Indigenous people and Africans. Slavery would not officially end in Massachusetts until 1783.

So, too, was slavery integral to Harvard. Over nearly 150 years, from the University’s founding in 1636 until the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court found slavery unlawful in 1783, Harvard presidents and other leaders, as well as its faculty and staff, enslaved more than 70 individuals, some of whom labored on campus.⁠Go to footnote 34 detail Enslaved men and women served Harvard presidents and professors and fed and cared for Harvard students. Moreover, throughout this period and well into the 19th century, the University and its donors benefited from extensive financial ties to slavery. These profitable financial relationships included, most notably, the beneficence of donors who accumulated their wealth through slave trading; from the labor of enslaved people on plantations in the Caribbean islands and in the American South; and from the Northern textile manufacturing industry, supplied with cotton grown by enslaved people held in bondage. The University also profited from its own financial investments, which included loans to Caribbean sugar planters, rum distillers, and plantation suppliers along with investments in cotton manufacturing.⁠Go to footnote 35 detail The balance of the University’s financial ties shifted over time; with the development of industrial capitalism in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the plantation economy evolved, and cotton began to take center stage. Northern textile industrialists interacted with the institution of slavery through the cotton trade; enslaved laborers produced the cotton that was the engine of textile production and, therefore, of the region’s economy. Senator Sumner called this vital economic link between the industrial North and the slaveholding South an “unhallowed alliance between the lords of the lash and the lords of the loom.”⁠Go to footnote 36 detail

This plan of Harvard College, drawn in 1784 by the student Joshua Green, shows the main student buildings on campus—Holden Chapel, Hollis Hall, Harvard Hall (III), and Massachusetts Hall—all of which were built in the era when enslaved people worked on the campus and still stand today. HUV 2181 Folder 4, Harvard University Archives

Harvard’s donors in this period—and their wealth—were vital to the University’s growth. They allowed the University to hire faculty, support students, develop its infrastructure, and, ultimately, begin to establish itself as a national institution.⁠Go to footnote 37 detail Still today, early Harvard benefactors who accumulated their wealth through slavery are memorialized throughout campus in statues, buildings, student houses, and endowed professorships—and indeed in other educational, civic, and cultural organizations across Massachusetts. These individuals’ involvement as critical players in the University’s early development, and the commemorations of their contributions still visible in the campus landscape, are an important part of the history with which we must now reckon.

Slavery and Its Legacies before and after the Civil War

During the antebellum era, well after the end of slavery in Massachusetts, and even after the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution conferred emancipation nationwide in 1865, vestiges—or legacies—of the system lingered. Legacies of slavery such as exclusion, segregation, and discrimination against Blacks in employment, voting, housing, healthcare, public accommodations, criminal punishment, and education, among other areas, persisted in the South as well as the North.⁠Go to footnote 38 detail Notwithstanding the Commonwealth’s Revolutionary War heritage as birthplace of the colonists’ struggle for liberty, its celebrated antislavery activists, and its many brave Union veterans of the Civil War,⁠Go to footnote 39 detail racial inequality flourished in Massachusetts—and at Harvard—as Blacks struggled for equal opportunity and full citizenship.⁠Go to footnote 40 detail

Slavery and Antislavery before the Civil War

In the years before the Civil War, the color line held at Harvard despite a false start toward Black access. In 1850, Harvard’s medical school admitted three Black students but, after a group of white students and alumni objected, the School’s dean, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., expelled them.⁠Go to footnote 41 detail The episode crystallized opposition to Black students on campus, which outweighed the views of a vocal contingent of white classmates who supported the admission of the three African American students.⁠Go to footnote 42 detail Over 100 years would pass before these more welcoming attitudes toward Blacks would prevail and open the door to significant Black enrollment.

The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, requiring the return of enslaved people to their owners, even if slaves had escaped to free states, turned more white Northerners against slavery and its cruelties.⁠Go to footnote 43 detail Yet support for antislavery efforts remained anemic at Harvard, even amid the rise of abolitionist sentiment in the Commonwealth. In some cases, University leadership even attempted to suppress abolitionist sentiment.

This flyer, printed in Boston in 1851, warned the city’s Black community to beware of slave catchers who were emboldened by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling that the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 must be enforced in Massachusetts. Printing and distributing such flyers was one of the activities of the Vigilance Committee of Boston (see Section IV below). Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Printed Ephemera Collection, Library of Congress

Within the context of increasing political rancor and social division on and off campus, a small but vocal group of Harvard affiliates pressed the abolitionist cause. In addition to Charles Sumner, outspoken abolitionist voices included Wendell Phillips (AB 1831; LLB 1834), founder of the New England Antislavery Society; John Gorham Palfrey (AB 1815; dean and faculty member, 1830–1839; overseer, 1828–1831, 1852–1855), the first dean of the Divinity School; and several other faculty members, among them cofounders of the Cambridge Anti-Slavery Society.⁠Go to footnote 44 detail Richard Henry Dana Jr. (AB 1837; LLB 1839; lecturer 1866–1868; overseer, 1865–1877) cofounded the antislavery Free Soil party and represented Anthony Burns, a fugitive slave who had been arrested in Boston. In a turn of events decried by many Northerners, a Massachusetts judge, himself a Harvard alumnus and lecturer, ordered Burns returned to slavery in Virginia.⁠Go to footnote 45 detail Because of such controversies, the Fugitive Slave Act became a catalyst of the Civil War, and by the time war began in 1861, the University officially supported the Union. Many Harvard men fought and died for the Union, and their sacrifices are commemorated on campus in Memorial Hall; some also fought and died for the Confederacy.⁠Go to footnote 46 detail

Intellectual Leadership

Harvard’s ties to the legacies of slavery also include, prominently, its intellectual production—its scholarly leadership and the influential output of some members of its faculty. In the 19th century, Harvard had begun to amass human anatomical specimens, including the bodies of enslaved people, that would, in the hands of the University’s prominent scientific authorities, become central to the promotion of so-called race science at Harvard and other American institutions.⁠Go to footnote 47 detail Charles William Eliot—Harvard’s longest-serving president—and several prominent faculty members promoted eugenics, the concept of selective reproduction premised on innate differences in moral character, health, and intelligence among races.⁠Go to footnote 48 detail These were ideas of the sort that had long been deployed to justify racial segregation and which would in the 19th and 20th centuries cement profound racial inequities in the United States and underpin Nazi Germany’s extermination of “undesirable” populations.⁠Go to footnote 49 detail In addition to research in the University’s extensive collections of human remains, Eliot authorized anthropometric measurements of Harvard’s own student-athletes.⁠Go to footnote 50 detail Many of the records and artifacts of this era remain in the University’s collections today.⁠Go to footnote 51 detail

Vestiges of Slavery after the Civil War

The decades after the Civil War, during the period of Reconstruction when debates raged about whether and how to support the Black American quest for equality, are especially germane to understanding legacies of slavery in American institutions of higher education. The US Constitution changed, reflecting the nation’s formal break with slavery and commitment to equal citizenship rights regardless of race. The 14th Amendment, conferring equal protection and due process of law, and the 15th Amendment, prohibiting discrimination against males in voting, were enacted and ratified.⁠Go to footnote 52 detail Within this context, reformers conceived policies and social supports to lift the formerly enslaved and their descendants. But it fell to the nation’s institutions, its leadership, and its people to safeguard—or not—citizens’ rights and implement these policies.⁠Go to footnote 53 detail

Around the same time, Harvard itself aspired to transform: it sought to enlarge its infrastructure, expand its student body, and recruit new faculty. Samuel Eliot Morison, a noted historian of the University, explained that during the period from 1869 into the 20th century, the University resolved “to expand with the country.”⁠Go to footnote 54 detail Harvard’s leaders, particularly Presidents Charles William Eliot and Abbott Lawrence Lowell, argued that Harvard should become a “true” national university that would serve as a “unifying influence.”⁠Go to footnote 55 detail They viewed the recruitment of students from “varied” backgrounds and a “large area” of the country as a linchpin of these ambitions.⁠Go to footnote 56 detail

Hence, two developments critical to understanding this moment of promise and peril occurred at once: The fate of African Americans hung in the balance. And Harvard, already well-known, sought to grow, evolve, and build a yet greater national reputation.

The University, as a prominent institution of higher education, held influence in a sphere deemed particularly critical to racial uplift. Because so many considered education “a liberating force,” legislative and philanthropic efforts to create opportunity for African Americans often emphasized schooling.⁠Go to footnote 57 detail Massachusetts was already a leader in this area; in addition to its many universities, the state had led the movement to establish taxpayer-supported “common schools” at the elementary and secondary levels.⁠Go to footnote 58 detail

Nevertheless, in Massachusetts and in every corner of the nation, African Americans encountered roadblocks to achieving social mobility through education. White opposition to racially “mixed” schools, born of racist attitudes about Black ability and character promoted by slaveholders as well as intellectuals at Harvard and elsewhere, blocked equal access to education.⁠Go to footnote 59 detail Segregated, under-resourced, and often inferior elementary and secondary schools became the norm for African Americans. In this, too, Massachusetts led the way.

Harvard alumni played prominent roles on both sides of the struggle over school segregation. One critically important chapter in that struggle, which would have dire nationwide consequences for Blacks into the 20th century, had occurred in Boston before the Civil War. In Roberts v. City of Boston, an 1850 decision, the Commonwealth helped normalize segregated schools. In that case—filed by Charles Sumner on behalf of a five-year-old Black girl—the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held that racial segregation in the city’s schools did not offend the law.⁠Go to footnote 60 detail Judge Lemuel Shaw (AB 1800; overseer, 1831–1853; fellow, 1834–1861) authored the opinion for the court. “[T]he good of both classes of school will be best promoted, by maintaining the separate primary schools for colored and for white children,” he wrote.⁠Go to footnote 319 detail Advocacy by the local Black community with important support from Sumner led the Commonwealth to ban segregated schools in 1855, the first such law in the United States.⁠Go to footnote 734 detail Nevertheless, decades later, in 1896, the US Supreme Court cited Roberts as authority when it held in Plessy v. Ferguson that racially “separate but equal” facilities did not violate the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.⁠Go to footnote 61 detail

In higher education, Blacks also found themselves in separate and unequal schools. It was left to historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), supported by the federal government beginning in 1865 and often founded by Black self-help organizations and religious societies, to provide a measure of opportunity.⁠Go to footnote 62 detail But from the start, HBCUs were sorely underfunded, a reality that hobbled school leaders as they sought to fulfill the HBCUs’ mission of racial uplift through postsecondary school access.⁠Go to footnote 63 detail

Predominantly white universities did not fill the breach. In keeping with prevailing racial attitudes and the relegation of African Americans to poorly resourced HBCUs of uneven quality, Harvard—like all but a few white universities—did relatively little to support the African American quest for advancement.⁠Go to footnote 64 detail

In the decades following the Civil War, at Harvard and other white universities, Blacks still faced discrimination, or plain indifference. Notwithstanding Harvard’s rhetorical commitment in the war’s wake to recruit a nationally representative student body that would model political collegiality, the University’s sights remained set on a white “upper crust.” Harvard prized the admission of academically able Anglo-Saxon students from elite backgrounds—including wealthy white sons of the South—and it restricted the enrollment of so-called “outsiders.”⁠Go to footnote 65 detail Despite access to civic organizations in major cities that could identify a pool of able Black students, the college enrolled meager numbers of African Americans.⁠Go to footnote 66 detail During the five decades between 1890 and 1940, approximately 160 Blacks attended Harvard College, or an average of about 3 per year, 30 per decade.⁠Go to footnote 67 detail The pattern of low enrollment of Blacks also held true at Radcliffe College,⁠Go to footnote 70 detail founded in 1879 as the “women’s annex” to all-male Harvard.⁠Go to footnote 71 detail Radcliffe did consistently enroll more Black women than its Seven Sisters peers.⁠Go to footnote 72 detail Yet the women educated at Radcliffe overwhelmingly were white, and Black women were denied campus housing.⁠Go to footnote 73 detail

William Henry Lewis (seated in the white letter sweater) was the first African American football player at Harvard, seen here with the 1892 team. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he coached football at Harvard from 1895 to 1906 but later turned to a career in law. He served as assistant US attorney for Boston and later as an assistant US attorney in charge of immigration and naturalization under fellow Harvard graduate President Theodore Roosevelt. Under President William Howard Taft, Lewis was an assistant attorney general of the United States. UAV 170.270.2 (Box 3, Folder 3), olvwork367630, Harvard University Archives

Those Blacks who did manage to enter Harvard’s gates during the 19th and early-to-mid 20th century excelled academically, earning equal or better academic records than most white students,⁠Go to footnote 74 detail but encountered slavery’s legacies on campus. Two examples illustrate the segregation and marginalization that the few Black Harvard students faced:⁠Go to footnote 75 detail First, Harvard President Abbott Lawrence Lowell’s signature innovation—a residential college experience for first years that was meant to build community—excluded the handful of Black Harvard students.⁠Go to footnote 76 detail Lowell’s exclusionary policy was eventually overturned by the University’s governing boards following press attention and pressure from students, alumni, and activists.⁠Go to footnote 77 detail Second, Black Harvard athletes, whose talents sometimes earned them respect and recognition from other students on campus, encountered discrimination and exclusion in intercollegiate play, and Harvard administrators sometimes bowed to it.⁠Go to footnote 78 detail Yet Black students generally could and did participate in campus clubs and activities—illustrating a “half-opened door,” as one author termed the Ivy League experience of African Americans and, for a time, Jewish and other students from disfavored white ethnic backgrounds.⁠Go to footnote 79 detail

The University’s history is complex, and its record of exclusion—not only along lines of race but also ethnicity, gender, and other categories—is clear and damaging. Yet this report does not explore the entirety of that difficult history; nor does it discuss at length the significance of Indigenous history to Harvard’s evolution, beyond colonial era dispossession and enslavement. This report focuses specifically on Harvard’s involvement with slavery and its legacies, from the colonial period into the 20th century, which is distinct in both degree and kind: Harvard’s very existence depended upon the expropriation of land and labor—land acquired through dispossession of Native territories and labor extracted from enslaved people, including Native Americans and Africans brought to the Americas by force. And, long after the official end of slavery, intellectual clout of influential Harvard leaders and distinguished faculty would be a powerful force justifying the continued subjugation of Black Americans.

Hence, the truth—Veritas—is that for hundreds of years, both before and after the Civil War, racial subjugation, exclusion, and discrimination were ordinary elements of life off and on the Harvard campus, in New England as well as in the American South. Abolitionist affiliates of the University did take a stand against human bondage, and others fought for racial reform after slavery. The willingness of these Harvard affiliates to speak out and act against racial oppression is rightly noted and celebrated.⁠Go to footnote 80 detail But these exceptional individuals do not reflect the full scope of the University’s history. The nation’s oldest institution of higher education—“America’s de facto national university,” as a noted historian described it—helped to perpetuate the era’s racial oppression and exploitation.⁠Go to footnote 81 detail

A Legacy of African American Resistance

This report uncovers Harvard’s complicity with slavery and its legacies, and in so doing, also recognizes as a part of the University’s history enslaved people of African and Native descent whose contributions have been overlooked. These individuals include Titus, Venus, Juba, and Bilhah, whose service in bondage to Presidents Wadsworth and Holyoke and their families supported their leadership of the University and enabled their lives as scholars.⁠Go to footnote 82 detail It also includes Cuba, once owned by Penelope Royall Vassall—sister of the slaveholding benefactor of Harvard Law School—as well as Darby Vassall, the son of Cuba and her husband, Anthony (Tony). Darby Vassall went on to play an important role in Boston’s free Black community, and his life and activism illustrate a critically important theme embedded in this report: Black resilience, agency, and achievement in the face of persistent discrimination.

The theme of Black resilience, agency, and achievement is especially relevant to the report’s discussion of late 19th- and 20th-century vestiges of slavery at Harvard. During the era of segregation, small numbers of African American students arrived on campus. Despite the oftentimes inhospitable learning environment, these Black Harvardians made vital contributions to the nationwide struggle against slavery’s legacies. A few examples make the point.

W. E. B. Du Bois, a graduate of Harvard College (1890) and the first African American to earn a PhD from Harvard (1895), made towering intellectual contributions even as he experienced racism on and off campus. Building on work he had first explored as a Harvard student, Du Bois, as a faculty member at HBCUs—first at Fisk University, the “Negro Harvard,” and then at Atlanta University—described and analyzed the persistent problem of the American “color line.”⁠Go to footnote 83 detail Moreover, Du Bois and the Black Harvard graduate William Monroe Trotter (AB 1895; AM 1896) cofounded the Niagara Movement, the precursor to the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, the NAACP.⁠Go to footnote 84 detail

Charles Hamilton Houston (LLB 1922; SJD 1923), the first African American editor of the Harvard Law Review, went on to become the vice-dean of Howard Law School⁠Go to footnote 85 detail and special counsel to the NAACP. A brilliant lawyer who was called “the man who killed Jim Crow,” Houston laid the legal groundwork for the reshaping of American law and society during the Civil Rights Movement.⁠Go to footnote 86 detail

And Eva Beatrice Dykes, the first summa cum laude graduate of Howard University, completed a master’s degree and, in 1921, earned a PhD from Radcliffe—the first African American woman to complete the requirements for a doctorate in the United States and one of three Black women in the country to complete a PhD that year. A daughter of enslaved people, Dykes went on to an illustrious career as a professor of English at historically Black colleges, first at Howard and then at Oakwood University.⁠Go to footnote 87 detail But when she had first sought admission to graduate studies at Radcliffe College,⁠Go to footnote 88 detail administrators were unimpressed by her credential earned at the historically Black Howard, and they required a do-over; Dykes, like some other HBCU graduates who enrolled at Harvard and Radcliffe, was forced to earn a second bachelor’s degree. She did, graduating magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1917.⁠Go to footnote 735 detail

The efforts of these African Americans, with support from white allies, including some at Harvard,⁠Go to footnote 89 detail gave rise to Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 US Supreme Court decision that outlawed state-sponsored school segregation and was “nothing short of a reconsecration of American ideals.”⁠Go to footnote 90 detail Brown and the Civil Rights Movement prepared the way for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, groundbreaking legislation that barred discrimination in key American institutions and helped create the more equitable world in which we live today.⁠Go to footnote 91 detail

These individuals, too, represent Harvard. They are important actors in the University’s history and in the making of a more perfect American union; and they must be made visible in this report. Through struggles against racial oppression and for human freedom, these graduates created legacies of professional leadership and civic engagement, and they made profound legal and social changes. The achievements of Black graduates of Harvard illustrate the entwining of the nation’s racial progress and access to a Harvard, and a Radcliffe, education.

Summary of the Report’s Key Findings

This account of the University’s entanglements with slavery and its legacies focuses on “connections, impact, and contributions” in the following categories: ownership of enslaved people; presence of enslaved people on campus; financial ties to slavery; intellectual leadership; and vestiges of slavery and resistance to racial oppression during the early 20th century. For purposes of this report, the activities of Harvard leadership, faculty, staff, students, and donors represent “the University.”

Our findings are as follows:

  • Slavery—of Indigenous and of African people—was an integral part of life in Massachusetts and at Harvard during the colonial era.
  • Between the University’s founding in 1636 and the end of slavery in the Commonwealth in 1783, Harvard faculty, staff, and leaders enslaved more than 70 individuals, whose names are listed in Appendix I.
  • Some of the enslaved worked and lived on campus, where they cared for Harvard presidents and professors and fed generations of Harvard students.
  • Through connections to multiple donors, the University had extensive financial ties to, and profited from, slavery during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.
  • These financial ties include donors who accumulated their wealth through slave trading; from the labor of enslaved people on plantations in the Caribbean islands and the American South; from the sale of supplies to such plantations and trade in goods they produced; and from the textile manufacturing industry in the North, supplied with cotton grown by enslaved people held in bondage in the American South. During the first half of the 19th century, more than a third of the money donated or promised to Harvard by private individuals came from just five men who made their fortunes from slavery and slave-produced commodities.
  • These donors helped the University build a national reputation, hire faculty, support students, grow its collections, expand its physical footprint, and develop its infrastructure.
  • The University today memorializes benefactors with ties to slavery across campus through statues, buildings, professorships, student houses, and the like.⁠Go to footnote 92 detail
  • While some Harvard affiliates fought against human bondage, on several occasions Harvard leaders, including members of the Harvard Corporation, sought to moderate or suppress antislavery politics on campus and among prominent Harvard affiliates.
  • From the mid-19th century well into the 20th, Harvard presidents and several prominent professors, including Louis Agassiz, promoted “race science” and eugenics and conducted abusive “research,” including the photographing of enslaved and subjugated human beings. These theories and practices were rooted in racial hierarchies of the sort marshalled by proponents of slavery and would produce devastating consequences in the 19th and 20th centuries. Records and artifacts documenting many of these activities remain among the University’s collections.
  • Research to advance eugenic theories also took place on campus: Dudley Allen Sargent, director of the Hemenway Gymnasium from 1879 until 1919, implemented a “physical education” program that involved intrusive physical examinations, anthropometric measurements, and the photographing of unclothed Harvard and Radcliffe students. Archives documenting Sargent’s activities remains among the University’s collections.
  • Among Harvard’s vast museum collections are the remains of thousands of individuals. Many of these human remains are thought to belong to Indigenous people, and at least 15 are individuals of African descent who may have been enslaved, two of whom also had Indigenous ancestry. President Bacow has established a Steering Committee on Human Remains in Harvard Museum Collections to address this finding.⁠Go to footnote 93 detail
  • Legacies of slavery persisted at Harvard, and throughout American society, after the Constitution and laws officially proscribed human bondage. Such legacies, including racial segregation, exclusion, and discrimination, were a part of campus life well into the 20th century.
  • Many esteemed Black graduates of Harvard and of Radcliffe aided the nation and their communities through activism, teaching, legal advocacy, and community service devoted to the eradication of racism and to equal opportunity.
  • The achievements of Black graduates of Harvard and of Radcliffe illustrate the entwining of the nation’s racial progress and access to a Harvard, and a Radcliffe, education.

These findings are discussed at greater length in the sections that follow, along with additional historical context and several individual case studies that, while not comprehensive, serve to illustrate both the nature and the extent of Harvard’s ties to slavery and its legacies. The final section of this report describes the committee’s recommendations for reparative action.



Slavery in New England and at Harvard