Harvard’s Slave Legacy
“People have this image of Harvard University being an ivory tower, as if it’s separated from the world,” observes Warren professor of American history and professor of African and African American studies Vincent Brown near the beginning of a short film that accompanies a much-anticipated report, released today, documenting Harvard’s historic ties to slavery.
“But there’s no separation from the world,” Brown continues. “There’s no place outside history.”
The report—deeply researched and heavily footnoted, the culmination of a years-long effort—lays out the findings and recommendations of the Presidential Committee on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery, formed in 2019 by President Lawrence S. Bacow, to study the University’s entanglements with slavery and its enduring consequences. (The report, recommendations, and other primary materials can be found on the project’s website, also unveiled today.) Those entanglements with slavery were in some cases very direct: the committee found records of at least 79 people who were enslaved by Harvard presidents, overseers, and faculty and staff members before the practice was outlawed in Massachusetts in 1783—many more than had been previously known. (Two of their tombstones stand in the Old Burying Ground across from Harvard Yard: a woman named Jane who was enslaved by Harvard steward Andrew Bordman—who owned at least eight people—and a woman named Cicely, enslaved by University tutor, fellow, and treasurer William Brattle.) In other cases, the links were financial or intellectual; the University benefited enormously from the slave trade, for example, through investments and donations, and Harvard scholars promoted racist ideas that underpinned slavery and other racial hierarchies .
More than a dozen faculty members from across Harvard served on the committee, which was chaired by Tomiko Brown-Nagin, dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and Paul professor of constitutional law. “It’s a historic moment for Harvard to reveal these painful truths—and they are painful,” Brown-Nagin said in an interview this week. “And yet, that is what we are supposed to do, as a university, and as a community dedicated to research.”
In a message to the Harvard community released alongside the report, Bacow and members of the Harvard Corporation pledged $100 million in funding to implement the committee’s recommendations for redress, which include teaching, research, and service, among other reparative measures. “Some of these funds will be available for current use,” the message read, “while the balance will be held in an endowment to support this work over time.”
(In a video message, Bacow expanded on this commitment: “The truth is that we must do what we can to address the persistent, corrosive effects of historical practices on individuals, on Harvard, and on our society,” he said.)
With this report, Harvard joins dozens of other universities that in recent years have conducted public investigations into their institutions’ connections to slavery, beginning with a landmark report in 2006 from Brown University. Since then the list has grown to include Georgetown, Rutgers, William & Mary, and the University of Virginia (which houses the more-than-80 member consortium Universities Studying Slavery), as well as Ivy League schools like Columbia, Princeton, Yale, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “All universities that are engaged in this work are indebted to Brown University, and to the leadership of Ruth Simmons [Brown’s then-president, the first African American to lead an Ivy League institution], for beginning this critically important endeavor,” Brown-Nagin said.
At Harvard, this research built on several earlier efforts. In 2007, the year after Brown University’s report—and long before any official sanction or encouragement from the Harvard administration—Bell professor of history Sven Beckert, began looking into Harvard’s ties to slavery in a series of seminars with undergraduate students, which culminated in a 2011 report, Harvard and Slavery. In 2008, Royall professor of law Janet Halley began examining more deeply the benefactor for whom her professorship is named: Isaac Royall, Jr., a colonial-era slaveholder and sugar-plantation owner. Halley’s examination spurred student protests that led to the 2016 decision to remove the Law School’s shield, which had featured the Royall family crest; in 2020 a replacement shield was approved. (Also in 2020, Harvard Medical School students successfully petitioned against the “Oliver Wendell Holmes” academic society because of the role its namesake, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., played in expelling three black students in 1850—one of them the prominent abolitionist Martin Delaney—when a group of white students objected to their admission. The society was renamed for William Augustus Hinton, a bacteriologist and immunologist who was the first black full professor at Harvard.)
In 2016, then-Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust acknowledged that “Harvard was directly complicit in America’s system of racial bondage from the College’s earliest days” and established a committee that conducted a preliminary study on Harvard and slavery. That same year, she and John Lewis, LL.D. ’12, the late civil rights leader and U.S. Congressman, unveiled a plaque on Wadsworth House dedicated to four enslaved people—Titus, Venus, Juba, and Bilhah—who had lived and worked there for two Harvard presidents (see photo above). In 2017, the Radcliffe Institute organized a conference that brought together scholars and thinkers to discuss the links between universities and slavery. At that event, the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates called for institutions to make reparations, cautioning, “My great fear is that if this is not dealt with, this will mark us for our whole history. It’s that deep, that profound, that threatening.” Faust, a Civil War historian, described how recent research had stripped away the North’s “great alibi” when it came to slavery.
Today’s report is deeper and more comprehensive than any of these previous explorations, reconstructing, page by page, detail by detail, the vast web of connections that, from the beginning, bound Harvard to slavery and racial subjugation. One of the strongest connections the 134-page report draws is between the University’s early growth and prosperity and the slave trade, first in the Caribbean and later in the American South. The colonial era’s economic alliance with the sugar islands of the West Indies—trading New England food, fuel, and lumber for Caribbean tobacco, coffee, and sugar produced by enslaved Africans (or for slaves themselves)—“effectively made Boston a slave society,” according to historian Wendy Warren, quoted in the report. That description included Harvard: “For roughly a century, Harvard had operated as a lender,” the report states, “and derived a substantial portion of its income from investments that included loans to Caribbean sugar planters, rum distillers, and plantation suppliers. After 1830, the University shifted its investments into cotton manufacturing, before diversifying its portfolio to include real estate and railroad stocks—all industries that were, in this era, dependent on the labor of enslaved people and the expropriation of land.”
Moreover, from its earliest days, the University received important and defining gifts from donors whose wealth was tied up in slavery and slave trading. Isaac Royall was one of these, a sugar-plantation owner in Antigua (involved in the brutal suppression of a 1736 slave rebellion there), who bequeathed lands that became the founding gift for Harvard Law School. The report gives plenty of other notable examples: Samuel Winthrop, the youngest son of the colonial governor, who made a fortune in Caribbean real estate and sugar plantations and joined with three other Harvard graduates in 1645 to donate the first-ever alumni gift of property—an apple-tree-covered parcel called Fellows Orchard, which today is the site of Widener Library. There was also Benjamin Bussey, a sugar, coffee, and cotton merchant, who left Harvard an estate that is now the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain. Israel Thorndike, a merchant and slave trader, donated a collection of maps that became the core of the Harvard Map Collection, “the most valuable single collection in existence”; he also donated to Massachusetts General Hospital and supported the organization that established what is now Harvard Divinity School.
“The donors during this period”—the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries—“were vital to the University’s growth,” the report explains. “They allowed the University to hire faculty, support students, develop its infrastructure, and ultimately begin to establish itself as a national institution.” Their names are memorialized across campus, in statues, buildings, and named professorships. “These individuals’ involvement as critical players in the University’s early development … [is] an important part of the history with which we must now reckon.”
Perhaps especially in the sections dealing with Harvard’s contribution to race science and eugenics, the report tells stark and sometimes shattering stories. It spends considerable attention on Louis Agassiz, a professor of zoology and geology who became one of the University’s most prominent race scientists and a proponent of polygenism, which not only argued for a hierarchy of races, but insisted that they were separately created. Agassiz, who contended that there were major anatomical, physiological, and intellectual differences between human groups, and placed white Americans and Europeans at the top of this classification, was celebrated in the South; one plantation owner in South Carolina invited him to examine enslaved Africans as “live research specimens.” Afterward, Agassiz commissioned photographer Joseph T. Zealy to make daguerreotypes of seven men and women, stripped nude, for his own “further study.” Their names were Delia, Jack, Renty, Drana, Jem, Alfred, and Fassena. In making the photographs, the report notes, “Zealy created what The New York Times described in 2020 as ‘some of history’s cruelest, most contentious images—the first photographs, it is believed, of enslaved human beings.’” The Zealy daguerreotypes, which remain in Harvard’s possession, are also the subject of a lawsuit brought by Tamara Lanier, a descendant of one of the photography subjects. In an appeal now pending before the Massachusetts Supreme Court, she is seeking to have Harvard give up ownership of the images of her ancestor, Renty Taylor, and relinquish any profits associated with them.
The Zealy daguerreotypes are only one example: from the mid-nineteenth century until well into the twentieth, several Harvard presidents and scholars conducted similarly abusive “research,” and their records remain among the University’s collections. In the late 1800s, Dudley Allen Sargent, assistant professor of physical training and director of Hemenway Gymnasium, established a system of rigorous exercises and conducted intrusive physical examinations on students that were motivated by his interest in “race improvement.” The exams included anthropomorphic evaluations, questions about family nationalities, and measurements of physical proportions. Sargent took nude photographs of many students at Harvard and Radcliffe, including a young W.E.B. Du Bois, A.B. 1890, Ph.D. ’95. “Like other prominent eugenicists of the period,” the report states, “he was preoccupied with the notion that the white race was deteriorating under conditions of modernity.” Sargent’s records and images remain in Harvard’s archives.
Even more wrenching are the remains of thousands of individual people held in the University’s museum collections, most either at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology or the Warren Anatomical Museum. Many of these are thought to belong to indigenous people, and at least 15 are people of African descent who may have been enslaved. In 2021, Bacow established a Steering Committee on Human Remains to conduct archival research on the remains of the enslaved individuals, and to consider options for returning them to their communities or descendants, or else for their burial, commemoration, and memorialization.
One account stands out in the report’s findings on human remains, that of a man named Sturmann, one of five people from different tribes in southern Africa, brought to Boston in 1860 and put on display in so-called “native” costume as “specimens of human nature in a savage condition just as they appear in their native forests and wilds,” according to the exhibition announcements. Performances included “monkey tricks.” Agassiz “lent his scientific authority to the proceedings,” the report states, addressing the exhibition’s inaugural gala. In April 1861, after more than six months on display, Sturmann, who was 17, took his own life. Afterward, Jeffries Wyman, Harvard professor of anatomy (and race scientist) who led the creation of the Peabody Museum, dissected Sturmann’s body and compared its measurements to those of a chimpanzee, a gorilla, and two Europeans, and noted that the teenager’s pelvis was “nearer” in some respects to that of an ape than of a white person. Casts of Sturmann’s head remain in Harvard’s collections.
“It’s such a horrible story,” Evelynn Hammonds says in the documentary that accompanies the report. The Rosenkrantz professor of the history of science and professor of African and African American studies, Hammonds served on the committee on the legacy of slavery. Christopher D. E. Willoughby, a visiting scholar at the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History, who helped conduct research for the report, comments in the documentary that Sturmann’s story “reminds us of how tragedy was at the bottom of racial science.”
The report carries through the twentieth century and into the present day, charting the long legacies of slavery that persisted well past Emancipation: segregation, marginalization, isolation, exclusion from dormitories, and discrimination in admissions. After the Civil War, despite a “rhetorical commitment” to greater openness and egalitarianism, the report states, “Harvard prized the admission of academically able Anglo-Saxon students from elite backgrounds—including wealthy white sons of the South—and it restricted the enrollment of so-called ‘outsiders.’” In large part because of the racist policies of Harvard presidents Charles William Eliot (who served until 1909) and Abbott Lawrence Lowell (1909-1933), who sought to sharply limit the presence of African Americans on campus, the number of black students remained low until the racial transformations of 1960s, when the civil rights movement and the student protest movement forced a sudden and overdue change. Between 1890 and 1940, the report states, approximately 160 black men attended Harvard, an average of about 30 per decade.
But hidden within that story of continued discrimination and inequality, said Brown-Nagin, is an important counter-narrative of resistance. “It’s vitally important to note that theme of the report,” she said. “It has to do with our need to broaden the historical actors that we think of when we think of Harvard. There were black graduates of Harvard and Radcliffe who experienced discrimination on and off campus, and yet lived lives of incredible impact.” The report names several: first among them is towering historian, sociologist, and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois. But also, lawyer and labor leader Ewart Guinier, founding chair of the Afro-American studies department (now African and African American studies), and Eva Beatrice Dykes, Ph.D. 1921, the daughter of enslaved parents who was among the first black women in the country to receive a doctorate and who went on to become a scholar of English literature. In her work, the report says, she “foregrounded white authors’ little-discussed views on race and slavery and elevated the prose, poetry, and song of black writers.” And also Caroline Bond Day, A.B. 1919, A.M. 1932, an anthropologist and educator whose groundbreaking research on mixed-race families “pushed back against the race scientists and eugenicists at Harvard and elsewhere”—including, to some extent, her own advisor—“arguing that race is not a fixed category and that by no measure are people of color as a group inferior to whites.”
Finally, the report lays out a series of seven recommendations: “The damage caused by Harvard’s entanglements with slavery and its legacies warrant action.” Both monetary and non-monetary, concentrated on Harvard’s own campus and institutions beyond it, the recommended actions focus, broadly, on teaching and research, partnerships with other institutions, and engagement with the direct descendants of slavery. The final recommendation in the list concerns accountability; in his message to the community, Bacow announced that Martha Minow, the 300th Anniversary University Professor, former dean of the Law School, a member of the committee on the legacy of slavery—and a scholar of international truth and reconciliation processes—will chair the committee charged with implementing the recommendations and transforming them into action.
In brief, the recommendations include:
1. To support descendant communities by using Harvard’s educational expertise to “confront systemic and enduring inequalities that impact descendant communities in the United States—including the American South, locus of the plantation slavery that produced cotton and fed the lucrative textile manufacturing companies of the Northeast—as well as descendant communities in the Caribbean.” The recommendation calls for “close and genuine” partnership with other institutions such as schools, community colleges, tribal colleges, universities, and nonprofit organizations already engaged in this work.
2. Honor enslaved people through memorialization, research, curricula, and knowledge dissemination, “in pursuit of truth and reconciliation” and to focus in particular on giving students the opportunity to “acknowledge and engage with” Harvard’s history of slavery.
3. Develop enduring partnerships with black colleges and universities: visiting appointments for scholars, exchange programs for students, research collaborations, library and archival partnerships, “in light of the invaluable role of HBCUs in the education landscape and the persistent underfunding of these colleges.”
4. Identify, engage, and support direct descendants. “We recommend that the University endeavor to identify the direct descendants of enslaved individuals who labored on Harvard’s campus and those who were enslaved by Harvard leadership, faculty, or staff.” The report called for acknowledging descendants’ lineage through the Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery Remembrance Program and further “engage with these descendants through dialogue, programming, information sharing, relationship building, and educational support.”
5. Honor, engage, and support native communities. “Slavery in New England began with the enslavement of Native Americans, and Harvard leaders and staff member enslaved and sold indigenous people as well as people of African descent.” The committee recommends financial support for research, dissemination of knowledge, recruitment of students from tribal communities, and the establishment of a conference under the Harvard University Native American Program to “advance a national dialogue on the histories and legacies of indigenous slavery and colonialism in the United States, catalyze deep research and establish new partnerships.”
6. Establish an endowed Legacy of Slavery fund to support the University’s reparative efforts. “The commitment of significant resources”—the $100 million in Bacow’s message to the University community—“can and does signify Harvard’s acknowledgement of wrongdoing and a responsibility to undertake a sustained process of repair.”
7. Ensure institutional accountability, with annual reporting and evaluation, and “revision of these recommendations as necessary.” This recommendation will be headed by the implementation committee, chaired by Minow.
The recommendations are written in language that tries to be substantive without being too restrictive, Brown-Nagin explained. In the beginning, she said, “the remedies were quite descriptive,” as committee members from different disciplines—law, history, education, business, policy, design, science—offered their own specific ideas and perspectives about what measures would be meaningful. As the process went on, they realized the need to balance substance and detail with openness and maneuverability. “The way the recommendations read now,” she says, “there’s substance and depth, but also room to really think things through as we move into implementation.”
“We have done the research,” Brown-Nagin continued, “and now we’re going to get down to work.”