Harvard Divinity School senior lecturer Dan P. McKanan ’89 discussed the role slavery played in the school’s founding in a lecture Monday evening.
The talk is the third event in the “Religion and the Legacies of Slavery” series, which aims to host conversations about the history of slavery through the lens of religion. The series builds upon Harvard’s landmark Legacy of Slavery report, which was released in April 2022 and detailed the “integral” role slavery played in the University’s formation.
McKanan outlined how the Legacy of Slavery report revealed HDS’ deep entanglement with slavery.
He discussed three individuals with ties to HDS who came from families with fortunes derived from enslavement — William E. Channing, class of 1798, a prominent Unitarian preacher who McKanan called the “visionary behind the founding” of HDS; Thomas W. Higginson, class of 1841, a minister, abolitionist, and HDS graduate; and John G. Palfrey, class of 1815, the first dean of HDS.
“It’s easy to assume that slavery was a relatively distant reality for the Divinity School’s founders and early students,” McKanan said. “The truth revealed by the report is that the founders of the Divinity School — many of them — were much more entangled with enslavement than most New Englanders of their generation.”
McKanan spoke about how Channing, Higginson, and Palfrey grappled with the “moral injury” of inheriting wealth from enslavement.
He said Channing privileged the perspectives of white abolitionists over enslaved people revolting against their enslavers.
“Whereas Haitian slaves rose up and fought for their freedom, emancipation in the British Caribbean occurred in response to agitation by white abolitionists who were inspired by their Christian faith,” he said.
“Channing fundamentally thought of slavery from the perspective of white people who faced the choice of whether or not to participate in enslavement,” McKanan added. “And that prevented him from recognizing the Haitian Revolution, or other acts of Black liberation as divinely inspired.”
While some historians have called Channing an abolitionist due to his vehement opposition to slavery and participation in abolitionist groups, McKanan disputed that characterization because Channing never accepted “the core claim of Black and white abolitionists of his time,” that enslavers were sinners who deserved to be expelled from Christian communities.
McKanan then discussed the involvement of the prominent Perkins family, who made a large fortune trading enslaved people in the Caribbean and donated large sums of money to Harvard University and the Perkins School for the Blind.
“The Perkins were utterly indifferent to the suffering that surrounded them,” he said. “Sarah Paine Perkins wrote that she believed that slaves experienced no more mental anguish than mules when they were whipped.”
McKanan took time to recognize his own position as a descendant of settler colonialists and the inherited wealth he has received through Harvard that derived from enslavement.
“Some combination of guilt and moral injury has led those who profited from enslavement to turn their wealth into philanthropy, but that philanthropy has mostly benefited their own descendants and others like them,” he said. “It is up to us now to expand our imagination, of which ancestors and which descendants count.”
—Staff writer Tyler J. H. Ory can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.