Harvard affiliates spoke about the ongoing work of the University’s Legacy of Slavery report at a film screening and discussion hosted at the Cambridge Public Library Tuesday evening.
The event, which drew roughly 100 attendees, was co-hosted by the Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery Initiative and My Brother’s Keeper Cambridge, a nonprofit advocacy organization that serves people of color. Following a brief reception, the event engaged participants with a grounding exercise before the screening of the short film and a panel.
Harvard African and African-American Studies and History professor Vincent A. Brown, Divinity School Dean for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging Melissa Wood Bartholomew, and Graduate School of Education student Terrance S. Mitchell spoke at the panel. Tony Clark, the co-founder and co-president of MBK Cambridge, moderated the discussion.
Harvard’s Legacy of Slavery committee released the short film following the publication of a landmark report in April 2022 that detailed Harvard’s historical ties to slavery. The film pointed to the eugenic science of Harvard professor Louis R. Agassiz, donor money earned off plantations in Antigua, and the 70 people enslaved by Harvard leadership, faculty, and staff.
Harvard’s report provided seven recommendations to the University for reparative efforts. Following the report, the Harvard Corporation — Harvard’s top governing board — and former University President Lawrence S. Bacow accepted the recommendations and pledged $100 million to redress Harvard’s ties to slavery.
Brown said the University’s accountability work “doesn’t end with making the film, writing a report, or even the spending of $100 million.” He added that a one-time payment, apology, or plaque change, is not enough to address the harm caused by Harvard.
Bartholomew emphasized the importance of tangible forms of reparations, including cash payments.
“If there is no form of acknowledging apology for this global harm, psychologically, spiritually, we're not going to move forward,” she said.
Mitchell, a doctoral candidate at HGSE, discussed the “hidden curriculum” of Black history at Harvard. He cited plaques commemorating Black scholars hidden by storefronts and the home of Black intellectual W.E.B Du Bois, who could not afford to live on campus while studying for his Ph.D. at Harvard.
Harvard’s Legacy of Slavery memorial project has worked toward bringing these histories of slavery, Black achievement, exclusion, and resistance to light, including developing a 10-stop, self-guided tour that takes participants through sites like Wadsworth House and the Old Burial Yard.
Brown said one source of debate while creating the Legacy of Slavery film centered around whether Isaac Royall Sr. — whose family helped found Harvard Law School through a founding donation — was complicit in suppressing the Antiguan slave rebellion. Royall paid for the execution of one of his slaves and had two more exiled. He received compensation from the state for all three.
“Isaac Royall Sr. had an advocate in 2021, an advocate who said, ‘Well, are you holding him too accountable for the execution of his slave, Hector?’ Hector had no advocate in that conversation,” Brown said.
Royall was ultimately included in the film.
Brown said he was satisfied with the final version of the film, but he said he believes “it doesn’t tell the whole story, and it doesn’t necessarily emphasize the way these legacies play out in the present.”
Roeshana Moore-Evans, the executive director of the Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery Initiative, said the event is the first in a series of screenings and conversations to continue outreach around Harvard’s history.
“That was very important, to do it right here in Cambridge, right out in front of the University where everyone, anyone can feel like they can come here and learn this history and be a part of this work,” Moore-Evans said.
—Staff writer Rysa Tahilramani can be reached at email@example.com.