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Co-Chairs of Harvard Legacy of Slavery Memorial Committee Slam University in Resignation Letter

Tracy K. Smith ’94 and Dan I. Byers claim they were encouraged to ‘delay and dilute’ efforts to engage descendants

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The co-chairs of Harvard’s Legacy of Slavery memorial project committee slammed Vice Provost for Special Projects Sara N. Bleich in their resignation letter on Wednesday, alleging that Bleich’s office both delayed their efforts to build relationships with local descendant communities and rushed to publicize their work on the memorial.

The Crimson first reported on Wednesday that the committee’s two co-chairs — English professor Tracy K. Smith ’94 and Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts Director Dan I. Byers — resigned from the committee over concerns that administrators were rushing their work, but their letter of resignation is a striking gesture of no confidence in how Bleich and other Harvard administrators are leading the Legacy of Slavery initiative.

“This decision, which neither of us takes lightly, extends from our sense that the necessary conditions for the work of memorialization, as agreed upon by committee members, are not yet manifest at the University,” Smith and Byers wrote in the letter, which was obtained by The Crimson.

Though Smith and Byers do not mention Bleich by name, they directly criticized her office for rushing the project and state in stark terms that Harvard is not currently in position to proceed with the memorial.

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“From our earliest committee meetings, we have warned ourselves against the hubris of erecting a memorial to the enslaved and their descendants without first forging genuine and durable relationships with descendant communities in Cambridge and Boston, yet we have been cautioned by the Office of the Vice Provost to delay and dilute these efforts,” they wrote.

“At the same time, we have been hastened to publicize our progress,” Smith and Byers added. “Without the input or buy-in of community partners, we were asked to create a timeline for completion of the proposed memorial.”

The letter was addressed to “All Parties Involved and Invested in the Work of the H&LS Memorial Committee” and sent to Bleich, interim University President Alan M. Garber ’76, interim University Provost John F. Manning ’82, and other administrators involved with the Legacy of Slavery initiative.

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Smith and Byers wrote in a statement to The Crimson that they had not intended for their email to be made public and that it had been “addressed to colleagues as a way to improve our internal process, and the path forward for the memorial work.”

“This is an email calling colleagues in, rather than calling them out,” they wrote.

University spokesperson Jason A. Newton had addressed some of Smith and Byers’ criticisms in a statement on Wednesday after The Crimson reported their resignations.

“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.

“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.

A Harvard spokesperson declined to comment on Smith and Byers’ specific criticisms in their letter of resignation.

Smith and Byers concluded their email with the “emphatic recommendation” that the University should pause its work on producing the memorial so that the committee can instead host public listening sessions to better inform its work.

The letter also stated that the committee’s work should take place “alongside a dedicated and appropriately staffed administrative body,” an apparent suggestion from Smith and Byers that the Legacy of Slavery initiative does not have the personnel it needs to achieve its stated goals.

Bleich joined Harvard in January 2023 to ​​oversee the implementation of Harvard’s Legacy of Slavery report’s recommendations, which were adopted by University leadership in April 2022.

Smith and Byers were publicly announced as leaders of the committee tasked with producing a memorial in February 2023, just days after Bleich officially started at the University. (The resignation letter, however, revealed that the memorial committee had begun its work three months earlier, in November 2022.)

Smith and Byers’ letter of resignation is not the only criticism aimed at the Legacy of Slavery initiative in recent months. Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist behind the 1619 Project, said Harvard’s $100 million commitment to its Legacy of Slavery is “a joke” compared to how much the University had profited off of slavery.

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Hannah-Jones’ remarks came during the University’s two-day Legacy of Slavery Symposium in late April.

“The truth-telling is just the beginning,” Hannah-Jones said during her keynote speech. “We’re not even close to a reckoning.”

Smith and Byers claimed in the letter that they had been “pressured” by administrators to publicly release a “Request for Qualifications” in December 2023 for artists to express interest in designing the memorial, saying their “bridge-building to external communities was still in its incipient stage” at the time.

The letter noted that the RFQ came just two weeks before former Harvard President Claudine Gay’s resignation and added that the University “as a community has barely begun to calculate, classify, opine upon and ameliorate the upheaval, vulnerability and disheartenment brought on by this devastating turn of events.”

“Even now, days after Commencement exercises marked by reminders of the breakdown of trust characterizing the current moment on campus, the Memorial Committee is being asked to abet the notion that Harvard is in any position to reckon with its past by announcing a revised RFQ deadline and project-completion timeline,” Smith and Byers wrote.

“Our decision to step down stems from our conviction that the only thing an ongoing ethos of speed will ensure is that the memorial-to-be will stand as a gesture of institutional self-regard; an aesthetic rather than a conscience- and community-based undertaking,” they added.

They also stressed the importance of the committee being allowed to conduct its work without administrative interference or pressure to accelerate its timeline.

“Unless and until the University President publicly revises the Committee’s charter or alters its membership,” they wrote, “the Committee must be allowed to do its work as it deems fit.”

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

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