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Chairs of Harvard’s Legacy of Slavery Memorial Committee Resign Over Timeline Disagreement

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English professor Tracy K. Smith ’94 and Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts Director Dan I. Byers resigned as co-chairs of Harvard’s Legacy of Slavery memorial committee over frustrations that senior Harvard administrators were trying to rush their process, according to a person with knowledge of the resignations.

Harvard spokesperson Jason A. Newton confirmed the resignations in a statement Wednesday afternoon. Smith and Byers did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The memorial project committee is part of the school’s presidential initiative on Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery, which released a historic April 2022 report addressing the role slavery played in Harvard’s history. The report also issued several recommendations for the University, including the creation of a public memorial for the enslaved people who helped shape the institution.

Smith and Byers were appointed by the University in February 2023 to lead the 13-member committee charged with creating the memorial.

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Newton wrote in a statement that the Legacy of Slavery initiative appreciated the two co-chairs’ work and “the great foundation they have helped lay for the work ahead.”

“Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery Initiative, led by Vice Provost for Special Projects Sara Bleich, take seriously the co-chairs’ concerns about the importance of community involvement and of taking steps that will enable Harvard to deeply engage with descendant communities and plans to continue to engage with the co-chairs to understand and learn from their advice and judgment as this work moves forward,” Newton wrote, acknowledging their criticisms.

“Our goal is to make the process one of learning, and connection, reckoning with the legacy of slavery at Harvard to build a meaningful memorial,” he added.

The committee is in the process of soliciting artist interest in designing the memorial, having launched an open “Request for Qualifications.” Their RFQ was first posted in December with a Feb. 20 deadline, though Smith and Byers announced in a Feb. 29 update that they would continue to review submissions on a rolling basis.

Despite receiving more than 100 submissions, Smith and Byers wrote that the deadline had been changed “to allow time to further engage with community partners and understand their priorities and considerations,” signaling that the group was not yet ready to evaluate proposals despite the public solicitation.

The University had announced at the time of the RFQ posting that the memorial was expected to be completed by the summer of 2027 — a projection that stayed constant even with the changing RFQ timeline.

It is unclear whether the resignation of the committee’s two co-chairs will delay the memorial’s timeline. The project had been “provisionally budgeted” roughly $4 million to complete its work.

—Staff writer Neil H. Shah can be reached at neil.shah@thecrimson.com. Follow him on X @neilhshah15.

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