Harvard Creates Fund to Redress Its Ties to Slavery
Harvard University is committing $100 million to study and redress its ties to slavery, the university’s president announced Tuesday, and with that money will create an endowed “Legacy of Slavery Fund,” which will continue researching and memorializing that history, working with descendants of Black and Native American people enslaved at Harvard, as well as their broader communities.
With the announcement, Harvard joins many other universities — including Brown, Georgetown and Princeton Theological Seminary — that are not just grappling with their complicity in the institution of slavery but also putting financial resources behind efforts to make amends.
Harvard’s financial commitment rivals the $100 million pledged by the leaders of the Jesuit conference of priests in March 2021 to be used for racial reconciliation and to benefit the descendants of 272 enslaved people sold in 1838 to pay off the debts of Georgetown University.
A report released with Harvard’s announcement said that at its roots, the university, which was founded in 1636, owed its immense wealth to patrons of the university whose fortunes were made on the backs of enslaved people, and whose names still festoon dormitories and other buildings that students walk in and out of every day.
“Harvard benefited from and in some ways perpetuated practices that were profoundly immoral,” Lawrence S. Bacow, Harvard’s president, said in an email to the university’s students, faculty and staff members. “Consequently, I believe we bear a moral responsibility to do what we can to address the persistent corrosive effects of those historical practices on individuals, on Harvard, and on our society.”
The Harvard report is an outgrowth of a project called the Presidential Initiative on Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery, commissioned by Bacow in 2019. It expanded on work promoted by Bacow’s predecessor as president of Harvard, Drew Faust, which in turn built on early work done by historian Sven Beckert and his students at Harvard.
The report contains broad recommendations for how the money in the newly created fund should be spent. The Harvard Corp. has authorized the allocation, and the funds are on hand, officials said, but the final details are still to be worked out.
The committee’s recommendations include: working to improve educational opportunities for the descendants of Black and Native American enslaved people, notably in the South and the Caribbean, where plantations traded with New England; honoring enslaved people through memorials, research and curriculum; forging partnerships with historically Black colleges and universities and tribal colleges, including a program to exchange students and faculty; and identifying and building relationships with the direct descendants of enslaved people who labored on the Harvard campus or who were enslaved by Harvard’s leadership, faculty or staff.
Beckert, a member of the committee, said he believed the scope of the project was rare, if not unprecedented, for an academic institution. “It is certainly the most significant response that any institution of higher education anywhere in the world has formulated in response to its entanglement in slavery,” he said.
The committee report says the Legacy of Slavery Fund is “a necessary predicate to and foundation for redress,” but does not call for direct financial reparations to descendants of enslaved people.
Reparations “means different things to different people, so fixating on that term I think can be counterproductive,” said Tomiko Brown-Nagin, the committee chair and dean of the Harvard Radcliffe Institute.
Harvard’s wealth gives it outsize influence and resources to dedicate to the cause. The university’s endowment soared to $53 billion in 2021, up 27% from the year before, and it had a $283 million operating surplus despite the pandemic.
The report is dense and exhaustive. Its contents include Harvard’s financial ties to slavery, campus abolitionists, race science and the 20th century vestiges of slavery through discrimination in admissions and housing.
But its most emotional component may be an appendix that lists more than 70 Black and Native American people enslaved by prominent figures at Harvard — presidents, fellows, members of the board of overseers, teaching faculty, staff members and major donors, in the 17th and 18th centuries. Almost every enslaved person is identified by a first name only — Titus, Venus, Juba, Cato — and the names of those who enslaved them. A separate column documents how the enslavers are memorialized by buildings, streets, paintings, sculptures and professorships.
Carissa Chen, now a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, spent two years as an undergraduate studying with Beckert, tracing the descendants of the enslaved connected to Harvard. She had a list of 121 names. She found 50 living descendants of two of them, eight generations removed.
Chen estimated that if all the descendants were found, they could number 50,000.
She hopes that through the new initiative, they will be found and will have a chance to tell their stories.
“The thing with reparations is that because we haven’t searched for living descendants for so long, it’s been kind of a thing that we think about abstractly,” she said. “The descendants themselves should be part of a conversation of what the university owes.”
Jordan Lloyd is one of the descendants. Lloyd, 32, a former actress, had worked as a server at Harvard’s A.R.T. Theater, without realizing how connected she was to the university’s past. She recalls Chen contacting her around the time of the protests over the police killing of George Floyd.
“To have this information made me feel so centered,” she said. “I found a lot of peace and groundedness in it, and I was incredibly grateful.”
But she also felt anger toward Harvard over the delay.
“It feels like they’re hopping on a bandwagon,” she said. Yet, she added, “If I’m the generation that’s going to see some forward traction, that’s good. I’m glad to be part of it.”
One of her ancestors, Cuba Vassall, was enslaved by Penelope Royall Vassall, described in Harvard’s report as sister of the slaveholding benefactor of Harvard Law School. The Royall family crest was adopted as a symbol of the law school, until it was withdrawn in 2016, as students protested the slaveholding association.
Lloyd ponders what Harvard owes the descendants: “Having our kids be allowed to attend some of the summer school,” she said, “working to help people locate who their ancestors were, that feels like reparations.” And, she added, “There’s the emotional toll of hearing that your family was enslaved; there’s the economic perspective and the loss of capital from their work.”
Ben Bryant, a Harvard senior who is studying the university’s economic connections to the institution of slavery, said he vividly remembered the moment in his freshman year when he first noticed a plaque commemorating four enslaved people who had lived in Wadsworth House, a former residence of Harvard presidents. The plaque was just installed in 2016.
To read the plaque, he said, he had to move up close because the writing was so small. Bryant, who describes himself as biracial, with a Black father and Jewish mother, said he hoped that the Legacy of Slavery Fund would encourage future students to consciously “dive in” to the history of slavery, and “to not be hit by it when you’re walking by on a random afternoon.”
In some ways, Harvard has been slow to catalog its history on racial matters. In the early 2000s, wealthier universities worried about becoming targets of class-action lawsuits demanding reparations, said James Campbell, a history professor at Stanford.
In 2003, Ruth Simmons, then the president of Brown, and the first Black president of an Ivy League school, plunged ahead, authorizing a project that resulted in a 2006 report on Brown’s ties to slavery. Since then, fueled by the growing public discussion of race in America, more than 80 colleges and universities in the United States, Canada and Britain have begun digging into their own past, according to Brown’s website chronicling the process.
In August 2019, the University of Glasgow pledged 20 million pounds, the equivalent of about $25.5 million, over the next 20 years, to remediate its legacy of slavery in a partnership with the University of the West Indies.
Georgetown, in addition to the $100 million pledged by the Jesuit Conference, announced a fund to raise about $400,000 a year to support the descendants of those enslaved. Brown University committed to a $10 million endowment to help local schools. Princeton Theological Seminary pledged to create a $27.6 million reparative endowment. Virginia Theological Seminary designated $1.7 million as a reparations fund. A Virginia law will require state universities that benefited from enslaved labor to provide scholarships to descendants.
Beckert said he had been inspired by the 2006 Brown report to begin looking into the history of slavery at Harvard.
“We cannot move forward on many of the issues that divide the nation today without coming to engage them at the very place where you find yourself — for me, that was as a professor at Harvard,” Beckert said.
He said his students were continuing to try to identify the descendants of enslaved people at Harvard.
“I think we have some material obligations towards the descendants of these enslaved people, and we are committed to that,” Beckert said. “How many we are going to find, and how we can find them, is of course open to debate.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times .