Harvard University will be committing $100 million to study and redress its ties to slavery.
The president of the Ivy League university announced an extensive report that reveals Harvard’s connections to slavery, plans for reparations, how many enslaved people were enslaved by prominent figures, as well as how many living descendants there are.
“Legacy of Slavery Fund”
Harvard University plans to invest $100 million to study and redress its past ties to the enslavement of Africans in the United States.
The president of the university announced Tuesday with the money used, the university planned to create an endowed “Legacy of Slavery Fund,” which will continue to research and memorialize that history while also working with descendants of Black and Native American people enslaved at Harvard and their broader communities.
With this announcement, Harvard joins many other universities, which include Brown, Georgetown and Princeton Theological Seminar, who are not only just grappling with their complicity in the institution of slavery but are also using financial resources behind efforts to make amends.
A report released with Harvard’s announcement said that the university’s roots, which was founded in 1636, owed its immense wealth to patrons of the university and their being made on the backs of enslaved people. These names still festoon dormitories and other buildings that students walk in and out of every day.
“Harvard benefited from and in some ways perpetuated practices that were profoundly immoral,” Lawrence S. Bacow, Harvard’s president, wrote in an email to the university’s members.
“Consequently, I believe we bear a moral responsibility to do what we can to address the persistent corrosive effects of those historical practices on individuals, on Harvard, and on our society.”
The Contents Of The Report
The Harvard report is part of a project called the Presidential Initiative on Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery, which was commissioned by Dr. Bacow in 2019. The report contains recommendations for how the money in the fund should be spent, with the Harvard Corporation having authorized the allocation, officials said.
Final details are still to be worked out.
The committee’s recommendations include the following: working to improve educational opportunities for the descendants of Black and Native American enslaved people, honoring enslaved people through memorials, research and curriculum. As well as forging partnerships with historically Black colleges and universities and tribal colleges, including a program to exchange students and faculty, in addition to identifying and building relationships with the direct descendants of enslaved people who labored on the Harvard campus or who were enslaved by Harvard’s leadership, faculty or staff.
A member of the committee, Dr. Beckert said of the project, “It is certainly the most significant response that any institution of higher education anywhere in the world has formulated in response to its entanglement in slavery.”
The committee report said the Legacy of Slavery Fund is “a necessary predicate to and foundation for redress.” However, the report did not call for direct financial reparations to descendants of enslaved people.
Reparations “means different things to different people, so fixating on that term I think can be counterproductive,” Tomiko Brown-Nagin, the committee chair and dean of the Harvard Radcliffe Institute, said in an interview.
The contents of the report include Harvard’s financial ties to slavery, campus abolitionists, race science, as well as the 20th-century vestiges of slavery through discrimination in admissions and housing. There is an appendix that lists more than 70 Black and Native American people enslaved by prominent figures at Harvard, ranging from presidents, fellows, members of the board of overseers, teaching faculty, staff members and major donors, in the 1700 and 1800s. Nearly every enslaved person is identified by a first name only as well as the names of those who enslaved them.There was a separate section that documented how the enslavers are memorialized by buildings, streets, paintings, sculptures and professorships.
Carissa Chen, now a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, spent two years of her undergraduate program studying with Dr. Beckert, tracing the descendants of the enslaved connected to Harvard. Eventually she came up with a list of 121 names, finding 50 living descendants of two of them, eight generations removed. She estimated that if all the descendants were found, they could number 50,000 and hoped that with the new initiative, they will be found and will have a chance to tell their stories.
“The thing with reparations is that because we haven’t searched for living descendants for so long, it’s been kind of a thing that we think about abstractly,” she said. “The descendants themselves should be part of a conversation of what the university owes.”
Jordan Lloyd is one of these descendants. A former actress, Lloyd worked as a waitress at Harvard’s A.R.T. Theater, not realizing how connected she was to the university’s past. She recalled Chen contacting her around the time of the protests over the police killing of George Floyd. “To have this information made me feel so centered,” she said. “I found a lot of peace and groundedness in it, and I was incredibly grateful.”
Lloyd also shared the anger she felt towards the institution for this delay. “It feels like they’re hopping on a bandwagon,” she said and then added on,“If I’m the generation that’s going to see some forward traction, that’s good. I’m glad to be part of it.”
One of her ancestors, Cuba Vassall, was enslaved by Penelope Royall Vassall, who was described in Harvard’s report as sister of the slaveholding benefactor of Harvard Law School. The Royall family crest had been used as a symbol of the law school, until it was withdrawn in 2016 due to students protesting the slaveholding association.
Ms. Lloyd ponders what Harvard owes the descendants: “Having our kids be allowed to attend some of the summer school,” she said. “working to help people locate who their ancestors were, that feels like reparations. There’s the emotional toll of hearing that your family was enslaved; there’s the economic perspective and the loss of capital from their work.”
Dr. Beckert said that he had been inspired by the 2006 Brown report to begin looking into the history of slavery at Harvard.
“We cannot move forward on many of the issues that divide the nation today without coming to engage them at the very place where you find yourself — for me, that was as a professor at Harvard,” Dr. Beckert said.
He said his students were continuing to try to identify the descendants of enslaved people at Harvard.
“I think we have some material obligations towards the descendants of these enslaved people, and we are committed to that,” Dr. Beckert said. “How many we are going to find, and how we can find them, is of course open to debate.”