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Landmark University Report Details How Slavery ‘Powerfully Shaped Harvard’

With the release of the long-awaited report, Harvard pledged to allocate $100 million to redress its ties to slavery.

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Harvard University faculty, staff, and leaders enslaved more than 70 Black and Indigenous people over about 150 years, including some who lived on campus, according to a long-awaited University report released Tuesday that detailed and acknowledged the “integral” role slavery played in shaping the school.

The report found that the institution of slavery was essential to Harvard’s growth as an academic institution, serving as a key source of the University’s wealth across three centuries. Harvard had “extensive financial ties” to slavery through key donors who built their wealth off of slavery, the report said — including some who are memorialized across the University today.

The report is Harvard’s most significant public acknowledgement of how it was supported and shaped by the institution of slavery. Its release comes more than two years after University President Lawrence S. Bacow formed the Presidential Committee on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery. On Tuesday, the University pledged to allocate $100 million to implement the report’s recommendations.

“Slavery—of Indigenous and of African people—was an integral part of life in Massachusetts and at Harvard during the colonial era,” the report said.

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The report, which was conducted by a team of Harvard faculty, offered seven recommendations, including a public memorial, partnerships with Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and a Legacy of Slavery Fund.

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The committee studied the history of slavery, racism, and resistance in New England and at Harvard. It detailed how Harvard scholars provided an intellectual justification for racism. In the 19th and 20th centuries, some Harvard leaders and top faculty members “promoted ‘race science’ and eugenics and conducted abusive ‘research,’ including the photographing of enslaved and subjugated human beings,” the report said.

The report found that some Harvard affiliates opposed slavery, fighting against racism on campus. But “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,” it said. The Corporation is the University’s highest governing board.

In an email to Harvard affiliates on Tuesday that was signed by every current member of the Corporation, Bacow accepted the committee’s recommendations.

“Harvard benefited from and in some ways perpetuated practices that were profoundly immoral,” Bacow wrote. “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 report identified dozens of major Harvard donors and leaders who enslaved people — including many who are today honored with buildings and plaques across campus. The list includes last names familiar to any Harvard student: Winthrop, Mather, Leverett, Dudley, Stoughton, Wigglesworth, Wadsworth, Brattle, Holyoke.

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Two of Harvard’s undergraduate houses — Mather and Winthrop — are named after slave owners, while several other are named after relatives of enslavers. Wadsworth House and Wadsworth Gate are named after former University President Benjamin Wadsworth, Class of 1769, who enslaved at least two people. Wadsworth is one of at least five Harvard presidents who enslaved people.

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Between Harvard’s founding in 1636 and 1783, when slavery was outlawed in Massachusetts, some people enslaved by Harvard affiliates “worked and lived on campus, where they cared for Harvard presidents and professors and fed generations of Harvard students,” the report said.

Harvard’s entanglements with slavery also extended well into the 19th century. The University and its donors continued to enrich themselves through the slave trade; plantation labor in the Caribbean and the American South; and the Northern textile manufacturing industry, which used cotton grown by enslaved people.

The committee that produced the report was chaired by Radcliffe Institute Dean Tomiko Brown-Nagin, who led a team of 13 professors from across the University. Some members of the group had studied Harvard’s ties to slavery prior to joining the committee, including former Law School Dean Martha L. Minow and History professor Sven Beckert.

Minow will lead an implementation committee charged with operationalizing the report’s recommendations.

The report called on the Harvard Corporation “to remedy the persistent educational and social harms that human bondage caused” to direct descendants, Harvard, and the country at large.

“Harvard’s past entanglements with slavery and its legacies cannot be undone, but the present and future are ours—as a University community—to shape,” the committee wrote in the conclusion of its report.

Harvard affiliates have for years called on the school to take steps to account for its ties to slavery. In 2019, the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda penned a letter to Bacow demanding reparations from Harvard. Later that year, Tamara K. Lanier filed a lawsuit against Harvard alleging the University profits off of photos of enslaved people she claims are her ancestors. The case is now before the Massachusetts Supreme Court.

Brown-Nagin said in an interview on Monday that the implementation of the committee’s recommendations will be on a “long timeline” since Harvard will need to create new infrastructure to support some of the proposals.

“One of the things that I’m most excited about in the remedies is that they are meant to endure past any Harvard president, any faculty member, any student,” she said. “There’s a commitment to seeking remedies that are in place across generations, just as the system of slavery and its legacies affected multiple generations of individuals.”

Brown-Nagin said certain recommendations, such as identifying direct descendants of individuals who were enslaved at Harvard, are already underway.

The Radcliffe Institute will host a conference on Friday titled “Telling the Truth About All This: Reckoning with Slavery and its Legacies at Harvard and Beyond.” The conference will feature two keynote speakers: Ruth J. Simmons, the president of Prairie View A&M University, and Ibram X. Kendi, the director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University. Bacow, Brown-Nagin, and University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 will also speak at the conference.

​​—Staff writer Cara J. Chang can be reached at cara.chang@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @CaraChang20.

—Staff writer Isabella B. Cho can be reached at isabella.cho@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @izbcho.

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