A Legacy of Slavery: Harvard’s Report on Reparations and its Implications for Higher Education
to make amends for its historical involvement with slavery and racism, Harvard acknowledged its role in the nation’s tragic history and layed out a map for reparations that other higher education institutions can follow.
Reporting a Past Linked to Slavery
Harvard’s name bears great weight locally and abroad. Now, too, do its connections to slavery. In April, Harvard released a 134-page report detailing its historical ties to slavery. The report reveals that faculty and staff enslaved over 70 Black and Indigenous individuals between 1636, the year of Harvard’s founding, and 1738, the year Massachusetts’ Supreme Court outlawed slavery. Slaves housed on campus provided to care to campus faculty and students, and, in addition, lived with university presidents and their families. Benjamin Wadsworth, whose name still embellishes Harvard’s Wadsworth gate and undergraduate Wadsworth House, is one of at least five former presidents who housed slaves at the univeristy.
Harvard’s report outlines how intertwined the slave trade was with the university’s financial foundations. Through the 19th century, a pool of Havard’s donations stemmed from benefactors directly involved with the slave trade in the Caribbean and American South. From the early to mid-1800s, one-third of Harvard’s private donations came from five donors who made a living off slavery, including slave labor on plantations and textile commodities sold to plantations.
Harvard’s report also uncovers how racism seeped into the institution well beyond the 19th century. According to the report, administrative officials protested early integration attempts and were slow to admit Black and Indigenous students until the 1960s. Additionally, the report details how Harvard was home to studies rooted in scientific racism. Professor Louis Agassiz is one notable faculty member who conducted eugenics research on campus, pursuing the theory of ‘race science’ and commissioning photos of enslaved individuals to support his pseudoscientific beliefs.
Facts surfaced within the report stem from a faculty committee initially established by former Harvard president Lawrence Bacow in 2019 to uncover and communicate Harvard’s historical ties to slavery. The 13-member committee is chaired by law professor and dean of Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute, Tomiko Brown-Nagin. In an interview with the Boston Globe, Brown-Nagin noted that beyond confronting the university’s complicated past, the report represents “a way of truth-telling,” as well as “ensuring that a broader array of graduates and individuals and communities represent Harvard.”
Harvard’s report does not only unearth the university’s legacy of slavery, but details how the university plans to approach reparations. Notably, the report announces that Harvard will establish a $100 million endowment fund, helping fuel additional research into Harvard’s slave-owning history and trace modern-day descendants of formerly enslaved individuals. The report further declares that funding will aid efforts to rename buildings honoring enslavers, construct monuments memorializing slaves and their families, and extend educational benefits to descendants of historically enslaved communities, including Indigenous groups, Black Americans, and Caribbeans of African descent.
While the university’s report acknowledges the shortcoming of financial reparations, it states that the endowment nevertheless serves “as a necessary predicate to and foundation for redress.” In a letter addressing the Harvard community after the report’s release, then-President Bacow declared that its recommendations “represent a helpful set of guideposts as we consider how best to approach the future in ways that properly reckon with our past.” Bacow’s letter also disclosed plans to appoint an implementation committee led by Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow that can streamline action on the report’s requests.
Eight Years in the Making
Bacow’s committee was not the first attempt to dig into Harvard’s history with racism. Information unveiled in the report traces back to earlier research conducted by history professor and committee member Sven Beckert. Beckert began researching Harvard’s connections to slavery with a cohort of undergraduate and graduate students in 2007, where he initially exposed some of the findings detailed in April’s report, including how the slave trade siphoned money into university funding. Beckert and his students first published their discoveries in 2011, eight years before Bacow’s committee commenced their work.
Harvard is also not the first university to approach reparations. Georgetown University amassed national attention in 2019 after announcing plans to install a $400,000 annual fund benefiting descendants of slaves owned by Jesuits linked to the university. Georgetown’s endowment followed a 2-1 student vote supporting reparations and calling for the university to address its past. Drawing from an original report it published in 2016, Georgetown revealed that funding from a Jesuit-led slave trade in 1838 helped pay off university debts, profiting off the 272 enslaved individuals involved.
Long before Georgetown or Harvard released their reports, Brown University had taken its own initiative to uncover historical patterns of racism. As early as 2003, Brown initiated research on Providence’s ties to slavery under acting President Ruth Simmons, who led the university from 2001-2012 as the first Black president of an Ivy League institution. Brown publicized its findings in 2006, a decade before Georgetown published its report and a year before Beckert began tracing Harvard’s history. Beckert cites Brown’s study as a catalyst for his research.
Harvard, Georgetown, and Brown are just three universities among a growing collection of higher education institutions striving to make amends with their past. Although Harvard has been investigating its connections to slavery since the late 2000s, university administration did not explicitly embrace extensive research efforts until recently, calling into question the timing and publicity of its report. The university’s committee publicized their findings amidst calls for racial justice at the national level, notably from student activists at Harvard and across the country. Whether amplified racial discourse in the nation helped streamline Harvard’s reparations plans is unknown, but the university’s recent activity demonstrates its willingness to participate in the discussion.
Implications for Boston University
As Harvard addresses and acts on its historical ties to racism, institutions like Boston University are beginning to face the shameful parts of their histories.
While BU has yet to deliberate reparations, students have helped shed light on the university’s racist past. Most recently, students petitioned former President Robert Brown to rename undergraduate residence Myles Standish Hall. BU students highlighted how the residency pays tribute to colonial military leader Myles Standish and drew attention to the horrors Standish committed against Indigenous members of the Massachusetts Tribe at Ponkapoag. Representatives from the tribe spoke at a campus panel last March, calling on former President Brown to support the name change. President Brown ultimately denied the request, citing the “significant role” Standish played in Massachusetts’ history.
Despite hesitancy to adopt building name changes on campus, the university has welcomed research into other historical incidents of racism. BU’s Center for Antiracist Research is one establishment investigating racism’s living history. In addition to conducting research on campus, the center collaborates with neighboring universities, including Harvard, through joint programs and discussions. A month after Harvard released its report on slavery, center director Professor Ibram X. Kendi spoke at a Radcliffe Institute conference on the report’s implications for reparations and higher education. Although the discussion focused on general conclusions, it nonetheless indicates the possibility that the university will embrace reparations and embark on research of its own.
An Ongoing Effort to Dive into the Past
If BU chooses to follow in Harvard and other universities’ footsteps, it will have to grapple with the intricacies of research, recommendations, and reparations. Nonetheless, the university can draw on support from local partnerships, existing higher education reports, and student efforts and join a widening circle of educational institutions confronting their past to establish a more equitable future. What remains in question, however, is how far BU and other universities are willing to go. Universities cannot rewire their histories, but they can use their resources to help inject justice where it is owed.