The Long Legacies of Slavery: Segregation, Marginalization, and Resistance at Harvard
Twentieth-Century Vestiges of Slavery
In the decades after the Civil War, in Massachusetts and in every corner of the nation, African Americans encountered roadblocks to achieving social mobility, including—perhaps especially—through education. White opposition to racially “mixed” schools, born of racist attitudes about Black ability and character promoted by slaveholders, blocked equal access to education.Go to footnote 526 detail Segregated, under-resourced, and inferior elementary and secondary schools became the norm for African Americans.
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 consequences nationwide for Blacks into the 20th century, had occurred in Boston shortly before the Civil War. In Roberts v. City of Boston, an 1850 decision, the state helped normalize segregated schools. In that case—filed by the Harvard-educated lawyer and US senator 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 527 detail Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw—a Harvard alumnus (AB 1800), fellow, and overseer—authored the opinion for the court. But in 1855, after advocacy and a school boycott organized by Black abolitionists with important support from Sumner, Massachusetts passed legislation banning segregated schools—the first such law in the United States.Go to footnote 528 detail Nevertheless, decades later, in 1896, the US Supreme Court cited Roberts as authority when it held that racially “separate but equal” facilities did not violate the 14th Amendment to the Constitution in Plessy v. Ferguson.Go to footnote 529 detail
In higher education, Blacks also found themselves in separate and unequal schools. It was left to historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs)—often founded by Black self-help organizations and religious societies, and which were offered some federal financial support beginning in 1865—to provide a measure of opportunity for Blacks.Go to footnote 530 detail But from the start, HBCUs were sorely under-resourced, and they remain so. Inadequate funding hobbled school leaders as they sought to fulfill the HBCUs’ mission of racial uplift through postsecondary school access.Go to footnote 531 detail
Predominantly white universities did not fill the breach. In keeping with prevailing racial attitudes and the relegation of African Americans to HBCUs with limited funding, Harvard—like all but a few white universities—did relatively little to support the African American quest for advancement.Go to footnote 532 detail
To the contrary, Blacks still faced discrimination or plain indifference at Harvard and other white universities. Notwithstanding Harvard’s rhetorical commitment in the Civil 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 533 detail
Abbott Lawrence Lowell and Discrimination in Admissions and Housing
Two major avenues for discrimination in the University setting, admissions and housing, figured prominently in the long Harvard presidency (1909–1933) of Abbott Lawrence Lowell. Lowell, who succeeded Charles William Eliot, guided Harvard through a period of significant growth—enrollment nearly doubled, and the endowment quintupled. His administration also gave rise to several highly publicized controversies related to discrimination on the basis of religion and race.Go to footnote 534 detail
Early in Lowell’s presidency, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences voted to supplement the University’s existing exam-based admissions system with an alternative “approved secondary school course” route.Go to footnote 535 detail In keeping with Harvard’s long-standing vision of itself as a national institution, the express purpose of this change was to increase enrollments from outside New England as well as from public high schools, where students were less likely to receive preparation for college entrance exams.Go to footnote 536 detail The decision attracted notice well beyond the Harvard community: in a letter to Lowell, the businessman and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie lauded the University for creating a “clear path for the poor boy from bottom to top.”Go to footnote 537 detail In practice, however, Lowell would work to limit the new process’s effect upon the socioeconomic makeup of the student body,Go to footnote 538 detail and to instead promote discriminatory admissions practices.
As part of Harvard’s evolving admissions policies, Lowell masterminded Harvard’s well-documented efforts to exclude Jewish students in the early 20th century. He did this in a variety of ways: first by privately tilting the admissions scale against Jewish transfer applicantsGo to footnote 539 detail and adopting a national recruitment strategy focused on regions of the country with smaller Jewish populations,Go to footnote 540 detail and then by capping the number of Jewish students admitted and introducing new admissions criteria.Go to footnote 541 detail These criteria, including personal interviews and the requirement that all candidates submit photographs with their application materials, were approved by the faculty in January 1926.Go to footnote 542 detail And, at Lowell’s behest, the Committee on Admission was granted discretion to execute, in his words, a “discrimination among individuals.”Go to footnote 543 detail
Inside and outside of the Ivy League, universities deployed many of these same policies and practices, including photo requirements, interviews, admissions tests, and recruitment from private preparatory and other urban feeder schools in ways that discriminated against or disadvantaged Black students.Go to footnote 544 detail
But plain indifference or outright exclusion from white institutions of higher education were the more pressing problems for African Americans, as evinced by the small number of Blacks admitted to Harvard before, during, and well after the 64-year tenure of Presidents Eliot and Lowell.Go to footnote 545 detail Despite access to civic organizations in major cities that could identify a pool of able Black students, the college enrolled meager numbers.Go to footnote 546 detail “The official view was that African Americans who had the grades and money to come to Harvard were welcome,” wrote two historians of the institution, but no effort was made to find, recruit, or welcome those students to campus.Go to footnote 547 detail Approximately 160 Black men matriculated to Harvard College during the 50-year period from 1890 to 1940, an average of 3 per year, 30 per decade.Go to footnote 548 detail Such vanishingly small numbers frequently left Black men isolated and marginalized on campus.Go to footnote 549 detail
Those Blacks who did manage to enter Harvard’s gates during the 19th and early-to-mid 20th centuries excelled academically, earning equal or better academic records than most white students, but encountered slavery’s legacies on campus.Go to footnote 550 detail
Lowell’s perspective on questions of race—rooted in racial hierarchy and eugenics—shaped campus life. He granted Charles B. Davenport and the Eugenics Record Office (ERO) access to “the physical and intellectual records” of Harvard students for eugenics research.Go to footnote 551 detail And in response to a request from a Harvard faculty member, Lowell lobbied a US senator to support immigration quotas,Go to footnote 552 detail in keeping with his views “that no democracy could be successful unless it was tolerably homogeneous; and that the presence of [different] races which did not intermingle was unfortunate, as indeed it has been in the case of the negro.”Go to footnote 553 detail
Lowell’s views resulted in a notorious example of Black marginalization on campus. In the summer of 1922, when Harvard was already under fire in the press over “the Jewish question”—the University’s anti-Jewish admissions policies—a new controversy developed: President Lowell’s signature innovation—a residential college experience for first years that was meant to build community—excluded the handful of Black Harvard students. The community Lowell sought to build included whites only.Go to footnote 554 detail
The seeds of this so-called “dormitory crisis” had been planted the previous spring when William J. Knox Jr., a newly admitted Black freshman from New Bedford, Massachusetts—and a great-nephew of the Black abolitionist Harriet JacobsGo to footnote 555 detail—was barred from living in the freshman dormitories.Go to footnote 556 detail Knox had initially been granted a room but, shortly after appearing in person for an entrance examination, he received a telegram asking that he return his registration card. One week later, Knox received a letter informing him that the freshman halls were full.Go to footnote 557 detail
Knox traveled to Cambridge with the fellow New Bedford native and recent Harvard College graduate Edwin B. Jourdain Jr. (AB 1921), then enrolled in Harvard Business School, to inquire after the change.Go to footnote 558 detail Jourdain had, after all, been permitted as a Black student to live in the freshman halls just a few years earlier. Dean Philip P. Chase informed Knox and Jourdain of Harvard’s policy: while Black students were allowed in voluntary residence and dining halls, they were excluded from the freshman halls because residence in those dormitories was compulsory (for whites).Go to footnote 559 detail In Lowell’s view, “Those students whose social prejudice against the negro is strong can hardly be compelled into an association that, rightly or wrongly, is repugnant to them.”Go to footnote 560 detail Jourdain’s admission into the halls was dismissed as a wartime inadvertence,Go to footnote 561 detail and Knox was offered a spot elsewhere.Go to footnote 562 detail
Jourdain pursued the matter further, seeking a conference with President Lowell.Go to footnote 563 detail According to Lowell, he told Jourdain “that negroes were well treated at Harvard and that it would be a mistake for them to urge admission to the Freshman Halls.” Lowell also cautioned that, if “faced by the alternative of either admitting negroes to those halls … or of excluding negroes altogether, we might, or should, be compelled to adopt the latter, like some other colleges.” News of this exchange spread, and Lowell’s words were interpreted as a warning to those who might protest the policy, though he denied this was his intent. Lowell affirmed Harvard’s duty to provide “the best possible opportunities for education,” but doubled down on his position that Harvard did not owe Black students “inclusion in a compulsory social system with other people when it is not mutually agreeable.”Go to footnote 564 detail Still focused on a national student body, it was, Lowell believed, “irrational to contend that on account of the two or three negroes in the freshman class, the College ought practically to drive away the large number of men from the South and West.”Go to footnote 565 detail
The issue gained public attention in the summer of 1922, when word leaked to the New York World that a committee of seven white Harvard alumni, including one Jewish graduate, was circulating a petition among fellow alumni to send to Lowell.Go to footnote 566 detail The petition, which gained more than 140 signatures,Go to footnote 567 detail “respectfully submit[ted]” that exclusion of Black students was a “Jim Crow policy” and argued that, while “the University owes the Southern man the best possible opportunity for education,” it does “not owe him the surrender of our Northern ideas of democracy and our Harvard ideals of justice.” If reversing the exclusionary policy meant a loss of Southerners “of intense race-consciousness,” the petitioners wrote, “the College should accept that loss rather than surrender its standards.”Go to footnote 568 detail
The administration showed no signs of budging until January, after added pressure from prominent Black alumni pushed the controversy onto the national stage and sparked another deluge of letters.Go to footnote 569 detail Roscoe Conkling Bruce (AB 1902), testing the policy, wrote to the registrar in December requesting a place in the freshman halls for his son.Go to footnote 570 detail Lowell’s reply and the ensuing correspondence with Bruce were published in the New York Times. The paper also printed a statement from William Monroe Trotter, on behalf of the National Equal Rights League, decrying Harvard’s “turn from democracy and freedom to race oppression, prejudice and hypocrisy.”Go to footnote 571 detail Another published letter, from James Weldon Johnson on behalf of the NAACP, charged that “by capitulating to anti-negro prejudice in the freshman dormitories or anywhere else, Harvard University affirms that prejudice and strengthens it, and is but putting into effect the program proclaimed by the infamous Ku Klux Klan and its apologists.”Go to footnote 572 detail
By the end of the month, Harvard’s overseers called a special meeting to appoint a faculty committee to consider the issue.Go to footnote 573 detail In March and April, the governing bodies amended Lowell’s policy on freshman housing; henceforth, “men of the white and colored races shall not be compelled to live and eat together, nor shall any man be excluded by reason of his color.” It was not clear what the new policy meant in practice; but it was hardly a ringing endorsement of racial mixing in campus housing.Go to footnote 574 detail
The chilly racial climate on campus extended beyond this notorious incident. In other ways, African Americans encountered impediments to full acceptance.
During the early decades of the 20th century, for instance, the talents of Black Harvard athletes earned them respect and recognition from University leaders and from other students on campus. But these athletes also encountered discrimination and exclusion, especially in intercollegiate play. Black football and baseball players sometimes faced harassment by other teams’ fans. And universities in both the South and the North sometimes refused to play against Harvard teams that included Black players. Harvard administrators often bowed to these demands.Go to footnote 575 detail A controversy over a 1941 lacrosse match under Lowell’s successor as president, James Bryant Conant, illustrated the problem and brought things to a head: William J. Bingham, Harvard’s athletic director, benched Lucien Victor Alexis Jr. (AB 1942; MBA 1947), an African American lacrosse player, after the United States Naval Academy objected. “We were guests of the Naval Academy,” Bingham said, “I had no choice.”Go to footnote 576 detail After an outcry by Harvard students, the Harvard Corporation “suggested” that the athletic director make the University “principle” of non-discrimination known to other institutions.Go to footnote 577 detail
This was not the first time Harvard students had made light of the Klan. In 1923, the Harvard Crimson published stories about Klan activities around Halloween, and the Harvard Lampoon printed an entire issue on the Klan.Go to footnote 582 detail Such “pranks” are unlikely to have escaped the notice of the University’s few Black students. In fact, the Crimson also reported on Harvard students’ involvement in the Klan, coverage that prompted another response—a telegram to the president and Board of Overseers—from Johnson on behalf of the NAACP.Go to footnote 583 detail
Still, Black students generally could and did participate in campus clubs and activities. They wrote for undergraduate publications, debated, and won academic honors. Appreciative of the opportunities they gained at Harvard, many African Americans spoke fondly of the University. Others reacted with “ambivalence” to the reality of marginalization despite inclusion at the University.Go to footnote 584 detail The decidedly mixed experiences of Blacks at Harvard illustrated a “half-opened door,” as one author aptly termed the Ivy League experience of African Americans during the early and middle decades of the 20th century.Go to footnote 585 detail
Albert Bushnell Hart: A Complicated Mentor to W. E. B. Du Bois
Albert Bushnell Hart, who succeeded Lowell as Harvard's Eaton Professor of the Science of Government and was a contemporary of many of the University’s prominent eugenicists, illustrates the ideological legacies of race science at Harvard in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, even among some of the University’s most progressive professors—of which he was one.
A faculty member in American history beginning in 1883, Hart held the Eaton Professorship from 1910 to 1926.Go to footnote 586 detail He was a prolific historian whose publications—including textbooks—shaped the teaching of American history at the high school and university level. He served as an early officer and president of the American Historical Association and was also president of the American Political Science Association, both during the time of the professionalization of academic disciplines in the United States.Go to footnote 587 detail
Hart’s scholarship often focused on issues of race and class. Like many white scholars in this period, he depicted slavery as a generally benign institution that was more problematic in principle than in its execution. Presenting himself as “a son and grandson of abolitionists,”Go to footnote 588 detail he argued that “How far slavery, as a system, was inhuman and barbarous is difficult to decide.”Go to footnote 589 detail He reasoned that “the evidence is overwhelming that many slaves were as well fed and housed as the poor whites of the neighborhood and were unconscious of serious injustice.”Go to footnote 590 detail
Hart routinely elided or minimized racial violence in his work, in one case noting that “none but an extraordinarily stupid or cruel master would keep his slaves down to a point where they could not do full work.”Go to footnote 591 detail In a history textbook written for use in American secondary schools he explained:
It is not strange that slaves were sometimes cruelly treated. In those days prisoners and paupers were often ill treated. The object of a master was to make his slaves work and obey, whether they felt like it or not. If they refused, the master or overseer had to flog them or let them be idle. Sensible masters would not injure the value of a slave by too severe punishment.Go to footnote 592 detail
Hart cast such violence as understandable, if not wholly acceptable, given that “two negro slaves might do less work in a day than one hired white laborer in the North.”Go to footnote 593 detail The slaves’ “indolence was the despair of every slave-owner,” he wrote; their “shiftlessness, waste of their master’s property, neglect of his animals, were almost proverbial; and the looseness of the marriage-tie and immorality of even the best of the negroes were subjects of sorrow to those who felt the responsibility for them.”Go to footnote 594 detail
Further, although vocally opposed to lynching—which he called “an opportunity for the most furious and brutal passion of which humanity is capable, under cover of moral duty, and without the slightest danger of a later accountability”Go to footnote 595 detail—Hart asserted that:
One of the few advantages of slavery was that every slaveholder was police officer and judge and jury on his own plantation; petty offenses were punished by the overseer without further ceremony, serious crimes were easily dealt with, and the escape of the criminal was nearly impossible. Freedom … has combined with the influence of the press in popularizing crime, and perhaps with an innate African savagery, to make the black criminal a terrible scourge in the South.Go to footnote 596 detail
Despite such views, Hart strongly supported W. E. B. Du Bois during his time as a student at Harvard.Go to footnote 597 detail Citing his “distinct ability,”Go to footnote 598 detail Hart recommended Du Bois for a scholarship that enabled him to continue his graduate studies. He also facilitated Du Bois’s participation in the American Historical Association’s 1891 meeting—making Du Bois the first Black scholar to present to that organization.Go to footnote 599 detail Du Bois’s paper, “Enforcement of the Slave Trade Laws,” was published the following year in the Annual Report of the American Historical Association.Go to footnote 600 detail But Hart’s support of Black students was qualified: he believed that only a racially mixed few could succeed. The achievements of Du Bois or of Booker T. Washington, he wrote in an extended discussion of race in his 1910 book The Southern South, “prove nothing as to the genius of the races because they are mulattoes.” He concluded that “few men of genius among the Negroes are pure blacks.”Go to footnote 601 detail
While Hart was not an advocate for racial equality, neither was he a racist in the mold of the many eugenicists at Harvard. He certainly believed that whites were the superior race:
There are a million or two exceptions, but they do not break the force of the eight or nine million of average Negroes. … Race measured by race, the Negro is inferior, and his past history in Africa and in America leads to the belief that he will remain inferior in race stamina and race achievement.Go to footnote 602 detail
Yet in a direct rebuke of his eugenicist colleagues, he declared “the Negro is entitled to be measured, not by brain calipers, not by two-meter rods, but by what he can do in the world.”Go to footnote 603 detail Education was, for Hart, the consistent answer to “the vast and absorbing problem,” namely “the presence of a non-European race, formerly servile, and permanently inferior to the white race.”Go to footnote 604 detail He argued that educating all Blacks, regardless of aptitude, was worth the effort to reach those who—like Du Bois—were exceptional: “It is a favorite Southern delusion that education and Christian teaching have no effect on the animal propensities of Negroes; there are thousands of examples to the contrary.”Go to footnote 605 detail Hart, also a Howard University trustee, concluded that the “most hopeful thing” is the “work of institutions like Fisk, Atlanta, and Talladega.”Go to footnote 606 detail “Education does not necessarily make virtue, but it is a safeguard.”Go to footnote 607 detail
Black Students at Harvard: A Legacy of Resistance
Just as legacies of slavery continued to shape campus life long after the Civil War and well into the 20th century, so too did Black resistance. Throughout the postbellum era and into the 20th century, Black students confronted and resisted marginalization, earning their Harvard educations and, ultimately, reshaping the nation.
W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois once recalled: “I was in Harvard, but not of it, and realized all the irony of my singing ‘Fair Harvard.’”Go to footnote 608 detail Reflecting decades later on his experience as a black student at Harvard, Du Bois declared that the University had “a galaxy of great men and fine teachers,” Albert Bushnell Hart among them. Yet, he wrote, “I went to Harvard as a Negro … recognizing myself as a member of a segregated caste whose situation I accepted.”Go to footnote 609 detail Of his social relationships, he wrote: “Following the attitudes which I had adopted in the South, I sought no friendships among my white fellow students, nor even acquaintanceships. Of course I wanted friends, but I could not seek them.”Go to footnote 610 detail A lover of music and singing, he was rejected from the Glee Club: “I ought to have known that Harvard could not afford to have a Negro on its Glee Club traveling about the country.”Go to footnote 611 detail
Even moments of triumph were tinged: When Du Bois and his fellow Black student Clement G. Morgan were selected as Commencement speakers, Francis Greenwood Peabody—Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard Divinity School and preacher to the University—moved to consult the Harvard Corporation as to whether it was appropriate to select two Black students for this honor.Go to footnote 612 detail Their answer was no; Du Bois spoke, but Morgan did not.Go to footnote 613 detail In the end, Du Bois was lauded for his address “Jefferson Davis: Representative of Civilization.”Go to footnote 614 detail Yet even a Harvard professor who recounted a “trustee’s” view that the paper was “masterly in every way” felt compelled to add that “Du Bois is from Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and doubtless has some white blood in his veins.”Go to footnote 615 detail
Du Bois arrived at Harvard having already completed his undergraduate studies at the historically black Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. Harvard, unwilling to accept his Fisk credential, required Du Bois to complete a second bachelor’s degree.Go to footnote 616 detail Fisk, like other Black institutions, was not accredited; the Southern Association of Colleges did not grant accreditation to Fisk or any other Black college in this era.Go to footnote 617 detail Du Bois enrolled in the College as a junior and graduated cum laude in history in 1890.Go to footnote 618 detail He completed a master’s degree in 1891 and earned his PhD in 1895.
During his time at Harvard, Du Bois’s financial struggles set him even further apart from many of his white classmates. As an undergraduate, he had to rely on outside funding and charitable loans to cover tuition and living expenses.Go to footnote 619 detail Unable to afford student housing, he did not live on campus; and his landlady, Mary Taylor, a Black woman from Nova Scotia, let him “owe the rent.”Go to footnote 620 detail As a graduate student, Du Bois was better financially equipped: he had inherited money from his grandfather, and, with the help of recommendations from Hart and another Harvard professor, James Bradley Thayer, Du Bois was awarded the Henry Bromfield Rogers Memorial Fellowship from 1890 to 1892.Go to footnote 621 detail
Du Bois’s experience as a Harvard alumnus mirrored, in some ways, the marginalization he faced on campus. In his autobiography, he wrote of his discomfort at visiting the Harvard Club of New York around 1950 as the guest of a white classmate and club member.Go to footnote 622 detail Some eight years earlier, in 1942, Du Bois had received what appears to be a form letter recruiting new members, prompted by the club’s loss of income with so many members leaving for the warfront.Go to footnote 623 detail Du Bois responded:
My dear Sir: Your letter … rather astonished me. I have been graduated from Harvard College over fifty years and this is the first time during that period that I have been asked to join a Harvard Club. I have assumed that the reason for this reticence was that I am of Negro descent. Possibly, however, Harvard is learning something from this war for democracy and has changed her attitudes. If this is true, I shall be very glad to hear from you and to become a member.Go to footnote 624 detail
There are no records of a reply from the club or a membership in Du Bois’s name.Go to footnote 625 detail
As much as Du Bois’s experience with the Harvard community—as both student and alumnus—illustrates the racism and disenfranchisement of that era on campus, it is also a powerful story of resistance. He directly and publicly challenged ideas and ideologies advanced by Harvard professors and administrators, including Dean Nathaniel Southgate Shaler and President Charles William Eliot.Go to footnote 626 detail His dissertation, titled “The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638–1870,” pushed against the common understanding of slavery at the time, casting it as a moral failure with lasting consequences.Go to footnote 627 detail
Another piece from Du Bois’s graduate student years, “Harvard and the South,” not only illustrates his willingness to enter the fraught discourse on the post–Civil War South but also offers glimpses into his experience, having been privy to intellectual discussions in which he was uniquely implicated because of his race. The paper argues that the Civil War was “at core the result of a vast economic mistake” and that the solution to the South’s problems of the day “lies in the trained leadership toward correct economic ideas” and “the intellectual impetus of the broadly trained university man.”Go to footnote 628 detail In one particularly telling passage, Du Bois notes his distance from the “Northern student of Southern affairs,” who, he writes, “wavers between calling the whites rascals, or the Negroes idiots.” The Northern student, he writes, “cannot decide whether to make out my Southern fellow student as a case of total depravity; or me as a specimen of the anthropoid ape.” Then, directly challenging his classmates’ stereotypes, he adds: “With as little personal bias as could be expected under the circumstances, I respectfully submit that he need do neither.”Go to footnote 629 detail Du Bois subtly acknowledges the prejudice—whether scientific, social, or religious in nature—of his Harvard audience:
If the Southern people can once be brought to see that it is to their highest economic advantage to have their working classes as intelligent and ambitious and with as great political privileges as possible, I care not what they or you think as to the origen and destiny of the Negro people.Go to footnote 630 detail
Long after earning his PhD, Du Bois remained active within the Harvard community, including attending reunions, and he continued to push Hart, with whom he stayed in regular contact, on matters of representation. For example, Du Bois responded to a letter from Hart wishing him well on his 50th birthday with the following note:
My dear Prof. Hart: I want to thank you very much for the kind letter which you sent on my birthday. I have been noticing that “The American Year Book” with which you are connected, always says surprisingly little about the Negro of America and elsewhere. Cannot something be done about this?Go to footnote 631 detail
Du Bois also worked to hold the University accountable.Go to footnote 632 detail In 1922 and 1923, leading up to the petition against President Abbott Lawrence Lowell’s exclusion of Black students from freshman dormitories, Du Bois consulted with the organizing alumni, sharing suggestions and contacts.Go to footnote 633 detail He was “shocked” and enraged by the exclusion of the high-achieving Blacks admitted to Harvard. And he brought national attention to the issue by unleashing what biographer David Levering Lewis called a “double-barreled” critique of anti-Black discrimination and the use of anti-Jewish quotas by “Fair (!) Harvard” in the August 1922 issue of Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP.Go to footnote 634 detail The dormitory exclusion distressed Du Bois because it showed that “mainstream America recognized no amount of merit, conceded not even the most minimal authority … however rarely talented, insofar as Negro citizens were concerned.”Go to footnote 635 detail
Du Bois’s role in cofounding the NAACP—the nation’s oldest civil rights organization—was his most profound act of resistance to the marginalization of African Americans in American society. Under the aegis of that organization and its lawyers, Black Americans struggled against discrimination in the political process, housing, public accommodations, the criminal legal system, and education.Go to footnote 636 detail The organization's legal strategy against segregation prevailed in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), one of the most celebrated cases in the canon of American constitutional law.Go to footnote 637 detail Thurgood Marshall and a team that included the Harvard-educated Black lawyers Charles Hamilton Houston (LLB 1922, SJD 1923), William H. Hastie (LLB 1930; SJD 1933), and William T. Coleman Jr. (LLB 1946) played leading roles in the lawsuit that “reconsecrated American ideals.”Go to footnote 638 detail
Ewart G. Guinier
Ewart G. Guinier, who would go on to serve as chair of Harvard’s Department of Afro-American Studies at its founding in 1969,Go to footnote 639 detail was a student well after Du Bois had left campus. He enrolled at Harvard in 1929, during Abbott Lawrence Lowell’s presidency, and was subject to the admissions practices Lowell had put in place. After graduating with honors from Boston’s English High School, Guinier applied and was accepted to both Dartmouth College and Harvard.Go to footnote 640 detail While Dartmouth offered a full scholarship including room and board, Harvard offered nothing. But Guinier was determined to attend the University. He turned down the full scholarship at Dartmouth and worked summers and throughout the school year to pay his way at Harvard.Go to footnote 641 detail
Despite Harvard’s new, ostensibly nondiscriminatory housing policy, Guinier was notified that he “had been granted permission to live at home”—permission he had not requested. As a freshman, Guinier would commute to campus from Roxbury, and during his sophomore year, he stayed in Brookline. Both locations are several miles from campus.Go to footnote 642 detail
Guinier’s first week at Harvard was jarring.Go to footnote 643 detail When he attended the freshman assembly to hear Lowell speak, he recalled:
There seemed to be a thousand people in the hall. I was the only Black. As we left the meeting I could hear conversations being started all around me,—but no one looked me in the eye, no one spoke to me. As I walked toward a group, they would move away.Go to footnote 644 detail
Later, Guinier was excited to encounter a familiar face—a former schoolmate—working the desk of the freshman library, but again, he was ignored. It was not until shopping for textbooks at the Harvard Coop that Guinier met another Black student, Ralph Bunche (MA 1928; PhD 1934), who welcomed him to Harvard. Bunche, who became an acclaimed diplomat, would go on to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950 and play an important role in the Civil Rights Movement.Go to footnote 645 detail “He was the first person who spoke to me voluntarily,” said Guinier, “and gave me some sense of community and connection with Harvard.”Go to footnote 646 detail Bunche also told Guinier to look for a job at one of the private student eating clubs that catered to wealthy white students, where he could work alongside other Black students.Go to footnote 647 detail
Classes were not much better, and Guinier’s professors rarely called on him.Go to footnote 648 detail He was “invisible to everyone around me,” treated as a “non-person,” he recalled.Go to footnote 649 detail Things improved when he joined Alpha Phi Alpha and Omega Psi Phi, two Black fraternities with local chapters, but he suffered from health problems, and his family faced financial difficulties.Go to footnote 650 detail Guinier was forced to transfer to City College in New York in 1931.Go to footnote 651 detail
Undeterred by these challenges, Guinier completed his undergraduate studies and went on to earn a master’s degree from Columbia University and a law degree from New York University. He became a prominent trade unionist, served as international secretary for the United Public Workers of America, and was the first Black candidate to be nominated by a political party—the American Labor Party—for the Manhattan borough presidency.Go to footnote 652 detail
In a turn of events that illustrates both Black intellectual resistance to inequality and institutional change over time, the history of the Guinier family and of Harvard remain deeply entwined. Both Guinier’s daughter, Lani Guinier (Radcliffe AB 1971), and his grandson, Nikolas Bowie (AM 2011, JD 2014, PhD 2018), followed him to Harvard first as students and later as members of the faculty. In 1998, Lani Guinier made history as the first Black woman to hold a tenured professorship at Harvard Law School.Go to footnote 653 detail
African American Women at Radcliffe College
The story of African Americans and Harvard during the 20th century includes the experiences of Black women at Radcliffe College. The history of Radcliffe is, itself, a tale of resistance. It was founded in 1879 as the Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Women, or the “Harvard Annex,” to create opportunities for women then excluded from the University. Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, the author and naturalist described above and a “bold” reformer “devoted to the cause of women’s higher education,” served as its first president.Go to footnote 654 detail Coeducation developed at Harvard in fits and starts; although Harvard professors taught the women of Radcliffe according to the University’s standards, women did not receive Harvard degrees until 1963.Go to footnote 655 detail
Radcliffe stood out among its peers on the matter of access for African American women: it consistently enrolled more Black women than other Seven Sisters colleges. It was “by far the leader” among these peers.Go to footnote 656 detail Nevertheless, the women educated at Radcliffe College (and the Annex) overwhelmingly were white, and they initially hailed predominantly from the Anglo-Saxon upper classes.Go to footnote 657 detail Radcliffe admitted its first Jewish students in 1893, and Alberta Virginia Scott (AB 1898), the first Black woman to graduate from the College, was admitted in 1894.Go to footnote 658 detail Thereafter, Radcliffe admitted a steady trickle of Black women, who invariably were “highly motivated and high achievers” according to one historian of the College.Go to footnote 659 detail Another historian characterized these women as “an African American female elite.”Go to footnote 660 detail
While the relatively few Black women educated at Radcliffe welcomed the opportunity to be a part of a community of women scholars, they also encountered discrimination. They were denied campus housing and scholarships—significant barriers to educational access and academic success.Go to footnote 661 detail Yet, many of these same women went on to play important roles in building a better and more equitable nation.
Two such women, Eva Beatrice Dykes (AB 1917; AM 1918; PhD 1921) and Caroline Bond Day (AB 1919; AM 1930), arrived at Radcliffe in the 1910s with degrees in hand from historically Black colleges—Howard and Atlanta Universities, respectively. Like W. E. B. Du Bois, the women were forced to repeat their undergraduate degrees at Radcliffe before proceeding on to graduate studies.Go to footnote 662 detail They were among fewer than 15 Black students who attended Radcliffe before 1920,Go to footnote 663 detail and neither was allowed to live on campus. Radcliffe would not permit a Black woman to live in the dormitories until 1925—two years after Harvard officially ended its discriminatory housing policy.Go to footnote 664 detail Neither Dykes nor Day wrote much about their experiences at Radcliffe, but both seem to have viewed the College positively—at least in comparison to their baseline, the Black experience in the American South, where both women had grown up.Go to footnote 665 detail Yet, both women also explored slavery and its legacies in their work, and they devoted considerable time in their careers to striving to right the wrongs African Americans confronted in American society.
Eva Beatrice Dykes
Eva Beatrice Dykes earned a bachelor’s degree, summa cum laude, from Howard University in 1914;Go to footnote 666 detail a second bachelor’s degree, magna cum laude, from Radcliffe in 1917; and, in 1921, she became the first African American woman to complete the requirements for a PhD in the United States, one of three Black women in the country to earn a PhD that year. A distinguished scholar of English literature, in her work Dykes foregrounded white authors’ little-discussed views on race and slavery and elevated the prose, poetry, and song of Black writers.Go to footnote 667 detail
Dykes went on to teach at several Black institutions, including Walden University in Nashville, Tennessee; Dunbar High School, her alma mater, in Washington, DC; Howard University, where she taught English from 1929 to 1944; and finally Oakwood College—today Oakwood University—in Huntsville, Alabama.Go to footnote 668 detail At Oakwood, where she taught from 1944 until 1968, Dykes served as chair of the English department and the Division of Humanities and played a key role in securing accreditation for the institution in 1958.Go to footnote 669 detail An accomplished musician, Dykes also founded the Aeolians of Oakwood University, now a world-renowned choir recognized as “an authoritative exponent of Negro spirituals and Work songs which express the yearnings of their forefathers to be free.”Go to footnote 670 detail
Much of Dykes’s scholarship analyzes attitudes toward Blacks and toward slavery among canonical Western writers of the 18th and 19th centuries. In her 1942 book The Negro in English Romantic Thought, or a Study of Sympathy for the Oppressed, she explores the explicit attitudes of a long list of English Romantic writers toward Blacks and slavery, examining “not only poems and essays but also letters, memoirs, journals, lives, records of conversations, speeches, and anecdotes, which indicate very intimately the trend of English thought.”Go to footnote 671 detail
She used this methodology to recover not only long-ignored arguments against slavery by celebrated white writers but also to recover the work of Black creators. Through her coedited textbook, Readings from Negro Authors, for Schools and Colleges, with a Bibliography of Negro Literature, Dykes introduced Black writers to American students.Go to footnote 741 detail Elsewhere, she wrote that the examination of the lives and work of Black authors and artists powerfully illustrated:
the variety of ways in which that cancer of American life, race prejudice, is eating the spiritual bowels of American morale and undermining the progress of the United States as a nation,—prejudice in labor, in education, in journalism, in the artistic world, in the courts of justice, in the church and in society in general.Go to footnote 672 detail
To study Black American achievements was, for Dykes, to highlight the damages of racism and to demonstrate the need for “that racial unity which is the objective of every well-thinking person of the twentieth century.”Go to footnote 673 detail
Caroline Bond Day
Caroline Bond Day, born in Montgomery, Alabama, studied under Du Bois at Atlanta University, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1912. She entered Radcliffe College in 1916 and began work on a second undergraduate degree, which she earned in 1919.Go to footnote 674 detail She studied anthropology under Earnest A. Hooton, an instructor and the curator of somatology—the study of human variation and classification—at Harvard’s Peabody Museum, who was sympathetic to at least some of the eugenicist views of his era.Go to footnote 675 detail Under Hooton’s guidance, she began research into mixed-race families that would form the core of her pathbreaking master’s work.Go to footnote 676 detail
After completing her second bachelor’s degree, Day served as a social worker, including with the YWCA and at a settlement house in Washington, DC, and taught at several HBCUs, including Atlanta University; Howard University; North Carolina College for Negroes, now North Carolina Central University; Paul Quinn College, then in Waco, Texas, where she was the dean of women; and Prairie View State College, now Prairie View A&M, also in Texas. She also continued to pursue her research in her spare time.Go to footnote 677 detail
Day took leave from teaching in the late 1920s to return to Radcliffe for graduate studies, supported by a grant from the Bureau of International Research (BIR) of Harvard University to her mentor Earnest Hooton.Go to footnote 678 detail While working in Hooton’s lab, she leveraged her own social networks to recruit 2,537 individuals from 346 mixed-race familiesGo to footnote 679 detail—an “inaccessible class” for white anthropologistsGo to footnote 680 detail—to participate in her research. These individuals entrusted her with sociological and genealogical information, physical measurements, family photographs, and even locks of hair.Go to footnote 681 detail Day’s thesis, A Study of Some Negro-White Families in the United States, was published in 1932, with a foreword by Hooton, by the Peabody Museum of Harvard University as part of a Harvard African Studies series.Go to footnote 682 detail
Day’s highly technical work pushed back against the race scientists and eugenicists at Harvard and elsewhere, arguing that race is not a fixed category and that by no measure are people of color as a group inferior to whites. This work is still hailed today as a groundbreaking demonstration, using the same tools deployed by race scientists from Louis Agassiz to Charles B. Davenport, that Black and mixed-race Americans are not systematically inferior to whites.Go to footnote 683 detail
These and numerous other acts illustrate the counter-history of resistance embedded in Harvard’s history.
Harvard, Radcliffe, and Racial Change
The presence of Black students at Harvard and Radcliffe increased significantly during the late 1960s: the racial transformation resulted partly from law—in particular, the antidiscrimination mandate of the Civil Rights Act of 1964—and partly from pressure brought to bear on the University by its own students. Among them was a young Lani Guinier:
My posse wanted to express our concern that there were very few black women being admitted to Radcliffe. We sat in in the corridor leading up to the dean’s office. We were told to be very “ladylike”; I remember well. This was our ladylike approach, but I think we got their attention. They certainly started admitting more students of color.Go to footnote 684 detail
University leadership played an important role as well. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, under the leadership of Wilbur J. Bender (AB 1927; dean of Harvard College, 1947–1952; dean of admissions, 1952–1960) and Fred Glimp (dean of admissions, 1960–1967; dean of Harvard College, 1967–1969) as deans of admissions and financial aid at Harvard, the number of Blacks and other people of color began to increase. These changes flowed from active recruitment, expanded financial aid, and explicit advocacy for student body diversity.Go to footnote 685 detail
Efforts to recruit greater numbers of students from modest backgrounds had begun a decade earlier during the administration of President James Bryant Conant (1933–1953), but African Americans did not then benefit from them. A “dominant figure in American higher education,”Go to footnote 686 detail Conant in the 1930s created national scholarships that broadened the University’s geographic reach and provided aid according to financial need.Go to footnote 687 detail After World War II, Harvard under Conant enrolled large numbers of veterans subsidized under the GI Bill, with such students constituting nearly three quarters of students enrolled at the University in 1946–1947.Go to footnote 688 detail But Conant repeatedly declined to undertake efforts to improve race relations or aid Black students, although he claimed to be “interested in the racial problem.”Go to footnote 689 detail Nevertheless, the changes he put in place to aid veterans and students in need of financial aid helped open the University’s doors to larger numbers of Black students during the mid-to-late 1960s.
It was after the postwar boom that Bender—a former veterans’ counselor and dean of Harvard College as well as a child of a working-class Mennonite family—was appointed dean of admissions and financial aid. His mandate was to find and recruit “the diverse groups needed to make a healthy student body.” Harvard College would endeavor to increase recruitment of academically able students from all corners of the nation and from relatively modest backgrounds, while continuing to admit able children of alumni and of the upper classes.Go to footnote 690 detail With Bender and later Glimp at the helm, admissions began to evolve into a larger office, and one guided by formal admissions policy with an interest in composing a diverse student body, at least by some measures; in other words, an operation that would be more recognizable to those familiar with University admissions today was taking shape.Go to footnote 691 detail In 1959, according to one account, some 18 Black men numbered among the freshman matriculants to Harvard College.Go to footnote 68 detail That figure represented an improvement over the average enrolled per year in prior decades, but the number of Black men on campus remained small.Go to footnote 69 detail
Harvard and Radcliffe student protests during the late 1960s, organized in the context of the civil rights, women’s liberation, and antiwar movements, accelerated the trend toward the recruitment and admission of students of color, including Native American and Hispanic students, as well as students in need of financial assistance.Go to footnote 692 detail The Black presence at the two colleges tripled as a percentage of the student body between the beginning and end of the 1960s (from 2 percent in the early 1960s to 7 percent in 1969).Go to footnote 693 detail By the end of the decade, amid increasing student protests on a wide range of pressing issues, the Association of African and Afro-American Students (referred to as AFRO) and like-minded student activists sought to reform the curriculum. They would see their demand for the creation of an Afro-American studies department begin to bear fruit in 1968–1969, when a faculty committee recommended the establishment of an Afro-American studies program (but not a department).Go to footnote 694 detail Ultimately, in April 1969, not long after Harvard President Nathan M. Pusey (1953–1971) controversially called in the police to disperse (predominantly white) student protesters, the faculty approved the creation of the Department of Afro-American StudiesGo to footnote 695 detail (now the Department of African and African American Studies).
Meanwhile, the upward trend in admissions of students of color continued during the 1970s. More than 400 Black students applied to join the Harvard College class of 1975, of whom 109 were admitted and 90 enrolled.Go to footnote 696 detail The University’s long-serving dean of admissions and financial aid, William R. Fitzsimmons (AB 1967, EdM 1969, EdD 1971), first joined the admissions office in 1972. He, along with David L. Evans—a son of Arkansas sharecroppers who earned a degree from Princeton University and served for five decades in Harvard’s admissions office—became nationally known for leading the University’s efforts to recruit a diverse student body.Go to footnote 697 detail
Harvard’s Role as a Champion of Racial Diversity in Higher Education
The 1970s also marked the point at which the University became a proponent of the consideration of race in admissions and a leader in defending such practices.Go to footnote 698 detail
Under the leadership of then-President Derek Bok, Harvard University, along with several other leading educational institutions,Go to footnote 699 detail expressed unequivocal support for race-conscious admissions when the US Supreme Court first considered a challenge to these efforts. Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, a 1978 case in which a rejected white applicant sued a state-supported medical school, set the terms of the legal debate over race-conscious admissions in higher education. In an amicus brief, Harvard argued that “the inclusion of qualified minority group members in a student body” was necessary for “important educational objectives.”Go to footnote 700 detail The brief built on the scholarship of Harvard Law School Dean Erwin N. GriswoldGo to footnote 701 detail and began by, in essence, repudiating the long period during which Harvard and other predominantly white universities did little to recruit African Americans to campus. The lack of racial diversity on campuses through the 1960s, the University acknowledged, had created a “sort of white myopia,” which narrowed the perspectives of both students and professors and deprived universities of scores of future leaders.Go to footnote 702 detail
Harvard’s admissions policy, as well as the University’s argument that the educational benefits of diverse learning environments constitute a compelling state interest, were both cited in the controlling opinion written by Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr.Go to footnote 703 detail Powell “even appended a summary of Harvard’s policy to his opinion to provide a kind of template.”Go to footnote 704 detail For this reason, Harvard’s admissions program has often been cited as a model for race-conscious admissions.
In every major subsequent case challenging race-conscious admissions, Harvard presidents—including Derek Bok, Neil L. Rudenstine, Lawrence H. Summers, Drew Gilpin Faust, and Lawrence S. Bacow—have remained steadfast proponents of diversity in education. In 1996, the University joined amicus briefs filed by the Association of American Law SchoolsGo to footnote 705 detail and the Association of American Medical Colleges,Go to footnote 706 detail in support of the University of Texas’s admissions program.
Harvard, along with other universities, also supported the University of Michigan through amicus filings in the Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger cases. The briefs argued that Michigan’s efforts to achieve the “educational benefits of diversity”—the accepted rationale from Bakke—were essential in higher education.Go to footnote 707 detail
In the Grutter opinion, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, like Justice Powell before her, cited Harvard’s practices as a model of constitutionally acceptable race-conscious admissions.Go to footnote 708 detail She wrote that Michigan Law’s “claim of a compelling interest is furthered bolstered by its amici, who point to the educational benefits that flow from student body diversity.” Moreover, she cited The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions—a landmark study of race-conscious admissions policies and their positive long-term consequences—published by former Harvard President Derek Bok five years prior, in 1998.Go to footnote 709 detail Bok and his coauthor, former Princeton President William G. Bowen, had also served as expert witnesses for the University of Michigan.Go to footnote 710 detail
Harvard University, in conjunction with other schools, also filed an amicus brief when the US Supreme Court again considered the admissions policies of the University of Texas.Go to footnote 711 detail The brief asked the court to reaffirm Grutter, arguing—just as the University had in prior briefs—that diversity is an important interest for educational institutions and that race-neutral alternative practices are inadequate. The brief emphasized that the schools did not employ “race or ethnicity as a classification in [their] admissions policies” but rather considered “myriad factors including race and ethnicity … [as] influenced by the Harvard Plan approved by Justice Powell in Bakke and [the] Court in Grutter.”Go to footnote 712 detail Separately, then–Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow filed an amicus brief with the dean of Yale Law School, contending that “considering race as a part of an individualized, holistic [admissions] process is entirety consistent with the Fourteenth Amendment” and that overturning Grutter would have “significant adverse consequences.”Go to footnote 713 detail
The University continues to support race-conscious admissions, most recently in a pending case that challenges its own practices, which both the United States District Court and the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit have upheld as constitutional.Go to footnote 714 detail Following the United States District Court ruling, President Lawrence S. Bacow sent an e-mail to Harvard affiliates reaffirming that the College’s use of race in admission “enriches the education of every student.”Go to footnote 715 detail “Everyone admitted to Harvard College has something unique to offer our community,” he continued, “and today we reaffirm the importance of diversity—and everything it represents to the world.”Go to footnote 716 detail
Recognizing that financial barriers also limit universities’ ability to recruit diverse cohorts of students, Harvard has also been a national leader in expanding financial assistance to ensure that all admitted students can afford a Harvard education. President Lawrence Summers in 2004 announced a major increase in aid for students from families of modest means; the University would no longer require parents with incomes below $40,000 to financially contribute to the cost of their children’s Harvard College education.Go to footnote 717 detail The College’s financial aid program has continued to expand, including through generous donor support.Go to footnote 718 detail Today, 55 percent of Harvard students receive scholarship aid, and 20 percent pay nothing at all.Go to footnote 719 detail
These steps do not erase the University’s exclusion of Black students nor its anemic efforts to recruit and welcome Black students to campus into the 20th century. But they do illustrate profound and positive racial change on Harvard’s campus over time.
The Challenge of Belonging
While it is important to acknowledge progress in student body diversity and the University’s commitment to it, the challenges that accompanied the demographic transformation on campus, described above, must also be acknowledged. Even after their numerical presence on campus substantially increased, some African American students reported marginalization on and off campus.
A Presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging, established in 2016 by President Drew Gilpin Faust (2007–2018), documented many of these challenges in its 2018 report. The Committee on Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery affirms and incorporates by reference the task force’s findings.
The task force also urged new actions to promote inclusion and ensure that all members of the Harvard community, across lines of race and ethnicity, feel welcome.Go to footnote 720 detail In response, the University installed its first chief diversity and inclusion officer in August 2020, and that office, along with offices or individuals tasked with advancing diversity and inclusion in every Harvard school, is taking concrete steps to promote inclusion and equity across campus.Go to footnote 721 detail
In these and in other ways, the University seeks continued momentum toward the achievement of a multiracial, multiethnic community where all students can thrive.