Harvard executives and staff enslaved more than 70 people, report says

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Harvard University leaders, faculty and staff enslaved more than 70 people during the 17th and 18th centuries, when slavery was legal in Massachusetts, according to a report detailing the deep ties of the university with the wealth generated by slave labor in the South and the Caribbean – and its important role in the country’s long history of racial discrimination.

The “Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery” report, released Tuesday, represents a historic acknowledgment by one of the world’s most prestigious universities of the extent of its entanglement with slavery, white supremacy and the racial injustice for centuries after its founding in 1636. It also shatters any notion that Harvard, due to its location in New England, was immune to the evils of economic and social systems based on human servitude. The school pledged $100 million to right injustices.

Much of Harvard’s record on slavery and racial discrimination has been known for years. But the report sought to deepen this knowledge and tie it together in a stark portrait of institutional failings. Among his discoveries:

  • Enslaved people of native and African descent played a vital role in the Harvard community during its first century and a half. Harvard’s first schoolteacher, Nathaniel Eaton, enslaved a man known only as “The Moor”, who served the college’s first students. Various presidents, fellows, wardens, stewards, and Harvard faculty members enslaved more than 70 people until slavery was outlawed in Massachusetts in 1783. The report did not give an exact count. But the university said the total appears to be 79, dozens more than previously known.
  • Five men who made their fortunes from slavery and slave-produced goods accounted for more than a third of the financial donations or pledges Harvard received from private individuals during the first half of the 19th century. Among them was Benjamin Bussey, a sugar, coffee, and cotton merchant who left Harvard an estate of $320,000 upon his death in 1842. James Perkins, whose business included the slave trade in the Caribbean, bequeathed $20,000 to Harvard in 1822.
  • Harvard was home to intellectuals who promoted “racial science” and eugenics in the 19th and 20th centuries. Their theories and research, including the collection of photographs of naked slaves and students, provided crucial support to those who sought to justify white supremacy and other racist ideologies. The university’s museum collections also contain human remains believed to be from Native Americans and slaves of African descent.

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The report was produced by a committee of professors convened by Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow in 2019. Many who read the report will find it “disturbing and even shocking,” Bacow said in a statement.

“Harvard has benefited from and in some ways perpetuated deeply immoral practices,” Bacow said. “Therefore, I believe we have a moral responsibility to do what we can to combat the continuing corrosive effects of these historic practices on individuals, on Harvard, and on our society.”

Harvard is one of the last major universities to engage in public awareness of their role in slavery, a trend that emerged after Brown University released an introspective report in 2006 about its ties to slavery. the transatlantic slave trade. Georgetown University, the University of Virginia, and William & Mary, among others, have also dug deep into their slavery pasts in recent years. A group called Universities Studying Slavery, based at U-Va., has about 90 members (including Harvard) in the United States and abroad.

Some universities, including Georgetown and William & Mary, have apologized in recent years for their role in slavery. Others don’t. Bacow’s statement ended short of an apology on behalf of Harvard, and the university declined to comment on that point. But Bacow announced that the university will set aside $100 million for initiatives, including an endowment, to respond to the findings of the report.

The report recommended expanding partnerships with historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Under this plan, Harvard would pay for HBCU faculty members to spend a summer, semester, or academic year visiting the Cambridge campus, and Harvard faculty could do the same at HBCUs. The report also predicted that HBCU students would be invited to spend a summer or one or two semesters at Harvard in their freshman year – with financial aid from Harvard. Harvard juniors could also spend time in HBCUs. Students in these programs would be known as Du Bois Scholars, honoring civil rights leader W. E. B. Du Bois, who in 1895 became the first African American to earn a doctorate from Harvard.

Tomiko Brown-Nagin, dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, who chaired the committee that produced the report, said many at the university were excited about the proposal to work more with HBCUs. The nation is indebted to historically black schools, she said. “Despite their benefits to the country, HBCUs were underfunded,” Brown-Nagin said in an interview, “and that in itself is a reflection of slavery and its legacies.”

The report also proposed that the university take steps to help address educational inequalities among communities of slave descendants, including in the South and the Caribbean, by working with schools, community colleges, colleges tribal and other institutions.

“We recommend placing particular emphasis on the creation, expansion and dissemination of world-class learning opportunities – including curricular and pedagogical innovations, expanded access to existing resources and exceptional teacher training – in particular to support historically marginalized children and youth from birth through high school and college,” the report states.

Harvard has already recognized significant links to slavery.

In 2016 Drew Gilpin Faust, the university’s president, said “Harvard was directly complicit in the American system of racial servitude” from its beginnings until 1783, and that the university was “indirectly involved through significant financial and other ties to the slave-owning South”. until emancipation.

That year, Faust appeared with U.S. Representative John Lewis of Georgia, the late civil rights leader, to unveil a plaque at Harvard’s Wadsworth House that commemorates four slaves – named Titus, Venus, Juba and Bilhah – who lived there. lived in the 18th century. and worked for two Harvard presidents.

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The report released Tuesday notes, “Yet more people were enslaved by Harvard stewards and, as such, likely served Harvard’s students and maintained its campus.” An 18th century steward, Andrew Bordman, enslaved at least eight people. Their names are listed as Cuffe; Pink; Jeanne “de Rose”; “Rose” Flora; Jeffrey “of Rose”; Caesar “de Rose”; Lucy; and Peter.

Along with new findings on the broader scope of Harvard’s ties to slavery, the report recommended new measures to honor the slaves whose work helped found and grow the university. Harvard should create “a permanent and imposing physical memorial, gathering space, or both,” the report said.

The report also recommended that the university seek to identify direct descendants of slaves who worked on campus or were enslaved by Harvard leaders, faculty, or staff. Harvard should, according to the report, “engage with these descendants through dialogue, programming, information sharing, relationship building and educational support.”

The report comes at a crucial time for Harvard. The university is defending its race-conscious admissions policy in a case that offers the Supreme Court’s conservative majority an opening to restrict affirmative action. Harvard, according to the report, has been “a champion of diversity in higher education” since the 1970s and provides major financial aid to students from all backgrounds.

But for generations, the report acknowledges, the university has contributed to racial discrimination.

In the mid-19th century, Louis Agassiz, a prominent Harvard professor of zoology and geology, espoused theories concluding, according to the report, that blacks were “at the bottom of an orderly racial hierarchy in nature.” Agassiz commissioned a photographer to take daguerreotype images in 1850 of seven slaves. Critics question Harvard’s right to ownership of these images. They are kept at the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology but not on public display.

“Racial science” and eugenics – a concept of selective racial breeding, now discredited – gained popularity at Harvard in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Charles William Eliot, president of Harvard from 1869 to 1909, authorized intrusive physical examinations and measurements of student-athletes in pursuit of what one gymnasium director called “race improvement,” according to the report. Eliot also said in 1909 that “there should be no admixture of racial stock” and made other statements considered to favor segregation.

Abbott Lawrence Lowell, Eliot’s successor as president, oversaw discriminatory admissions policies in the early 20th century, including well-documented efforts to exclude Jewish students. Under Lowell, there was also controversy in 1922 over whether Harvard’s small number of black students would be allowed to live in freshman dormitories at the heart of the residential education program.

“The community that Lowell sought to build included all whites,” the report said. Boards of trustees eventually reversed its exclusion policy, the report said, after press attention and pressure from students, alumni and activists.

Overall, the report found that about 160 black men enrolled at Harvard’s undergraduate university from 1890 to 1940, an average of just over three per year and 30 per decade. “Such extremely low numbers often leave black men isolated and marginalized on campus,” the report said.

This year, according to Harvard, more than 15% of students admitted to the class of 2026 identified as black or African American.

Many on campus say introspection into Harvard’s past is essential.

“It’s time to document what is our legacy,” said Evelynn M. Hammonds, chair of the history of science department, in a video released with the report. “We have to turn around and ask ourselves, ‘What were we doing? Why were we doing it? What does this mean for who we are now? »

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