Opinion: Here is a hard historical truth: Slavery powerfully shaped Harvard
Opinion by Lawrence S. Bacow and Tomiko Brown-Nagin
April 26, 2022
Lawrence S. Bacow is president of Harvard University. Tomiko Brown-Nagin is chair of the Presidential Initiative on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery and dean of the Harvard Radcliffe Institute.
In his groundbreaking 1935 book, “Black Reconstruction in America,” W.E.B. Du Bois eloquently described the tragedy and triumph intertwined in American history. Nations “make hideous mistakes; they commit frightful wrongs; they do great and beautiful things,” he wrote. “And shall we not best guide humanity by telling the truth about all this, so far as the truth is ascertainable?”
American universities have long celebrated the idea that, in our pursuit of knowledge, we seek truth. Indeed, the motto of Harvard — our university and America’s oldest — is Veritas, Latin for truth. Yet in recent years, the gap between the stated values of universities and the truth of these institutions’ histories has become glaringly apparent — never more so than when we consider their entanglements with slavery.
Here is one such truth: Slavery powerfully shaped Harvard. Contrary to popular narratives, during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, slavery was fundamental to New England’s economy. It was legal in Massachusetts, where Harvard is based, until 1783. By that time, Harvard was almost 150 years old.
We now know that Harvard leaders, faculty and staff enslaved more than 70 people of African and Native American descent. Some of these enslaved people labored at and for the university, including in the households of Harvard presidents.
Harvard’s ties to slavery and its legacies run deeper still: The labor of enslaved people enriched donors to the university, helping Harvard expand its infrastructure, grow its faculty and student body, and build its reputation. And prominent Harvard leaders and professors defended slavery, justified segregation, and promoted racial hierarchy and discrimination. For too long, Harvard has ignored these painful truths. But no more. Today, we mark a new chapter by releasing a report that extensively documents the university’s entanglements with slavery and its legacies.
Harvard is certainly not the first institution of higher learning to acknowledge these truths. Others in the United States and around the globe have documented their own ties to slavery. More than 90 institutions have joined the Universities Studying Slavery consortium, anchored at the University of Virginia, whose mission is to share best practices for addressing racism and human bondage in our histories.
Nor is this legacy unique to universities. In recent years, historians have documented that American presidents, members of Congress, U.S. Supreme Court justices and leading companies have significant ties to slavery.
Slavery’s legacies persist in racial disparities in education, health, employment, income, wealth and the criminal justice system. The question before us now is how best to reckon with these realities and atone for our past. Acknowledging the truth is not enough. We have a moral obligation to take action.
Where institutions have expertise, they should deploy their strengths in service of a better future. Governments, banks, museums, health-care systems and others must consider the ways in which they can best address inequities born of our common past. At Harvard, we are educators and researchers; our greatest contributions will be in education and research.
To be meaningful, our actions must be visible, lasting, grounded in a sustained process of engagement with affected descendant communities and linked to the nature of the damage done. Harvard’s intellectual, reputational and financial resources should be marshaled to address the harms of the university’s ties to slavery, just as our predecessors deployed these same resources in ways that caused profound harm.
Harvard pledges to draw on its expertise in education to confront continuing inequities — tangible legacies of slavery — affecting communities in the United States and in the Caribbean, to which New England’s slavery economies were closely tied. We will fund this work with a commitment of $100 million, including an endowment to support these efforts in perpetuity. We are not naive. This is an age of deep social divisions, and we know our efforts may be met with criticism and cynicism. Some will disparage disclosures of entanglements with slavery and insist that attempts to remedy past wrongs are unnecessary. Others, dedicated to specific forms of redress such as one-time payments in reparations, will argue that any other approach is insufficient.
Yet we believe there are many paths forward for institutions implicated in slavery. And we invite dialogue — and civil, informed debate — about this vital work. All American institutions have before them the opportunity to participate in a bold reimagining of our nation, characterized by investment in human potential and a renewed commitment to the ideals of our nation’s founding. We can never fully remedy the incalculable damage caused by America’s “original sin.” But we have the ability and the responsibility, in Du Bois’s words, to do “great and beautiful things.”