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Initiative on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery

Dear Members of the Harvard Community,

Over four years ago, Harvard undertook an effort to better understand the historical and enduring connections to slavery on our campus and in our community.  That effort built on years of work within the context of undergraduate seminars on Harvard and slavery. A number of activities on this topic followed: memorials commemorating the lives and contributions of enslaved individuals were installed at Wadsworth House and Harvard Law School; a faculty committee convened by President Faust initiated research on the university’s historical ties to slavery through work with the Harvard Archives and other university collections; the university hosted and joined academic collaborations and conferences with peers from across higher education; and numerous classes, seminars, exhibitions, performances, and discussions have taken place across our campus.
Today, I am pleased to announce the formation of a new university-wide initiative on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery, which will build on the important work undertaken thus far, provide greater structure and cohesion to a wide array of university efforts, and give additional dimension to our understanding of the impact of slavery. This work will allow us to continue to understand and address the enduring legacy of slavery within our university community.
I am grateful to Tomiko Brown-Nagin, Radcliffe Dean, Daniel P.S. Paul Professor of Constitutional Law, and professor of history, who has accepted my invitation to lead a new university committee composed of faculty from across schools and disciplines (members listed below), which will steer this interdisciplinary initiative, working in close collaboration with library and museum staff and community experts. Dean Brown-Nagin and the Radcliffe Institute will also anchor a range of programmatic and scholarly efforts within this new initiative, for which the University is initially committing $5 million. By engaging a wide array of interests and expertise, as Radcliffe is uniquely suited to do, this initiative will reflect the remarkable power of bringing together individuals from across Harvard in pursuit of a common purpose.

This new initiative will bring focus to some key elements of the university’s collective efforts in this area. First, it will have a strong grounding in rigorous research and critical perspectives that will inform not only our understanding of facts, but also how we might address the ramifications of what we learn. Our commitment to Veritas guides our teaching and our research—it also evokes our identity as a human community and our obligation to the society we serve.

Second, the initiative will concentrate on connections, impact, and contributions that are specific to our Harvard community. Harvard has a unique role in the history of our country, and we have a distinct obligation to understand how our traditions and our culture here are shaped by our past and by our surroundings—from the ways the university benefitted from the Atlantic slave trade to the debates and advocacy for abolition on campus. 

Last, the initiative will provide opportunities to convene academic events, activities, and conversations that will encourage our broader university community to think seriously and rigorously about the continuing impact and legacy of slavery in 2019 and beyond. Over the course of Harvard’s four-century history, the composition of our community has changed and evolved, becoming more diverse and more inclusive. This emphasis will help us build on efforts through the Office for Inclusion and Belonging and across the Schools, to ensure that discussion and understanding about our past can help us think differently and move us ever closer to a Harvard where all of us can thrive.

Before dedicating the plaque at Wadsworth House, President Faust acknowledged the work of the distinguished historian and Harvard alumnus John Hope Franklin, who said, “Good history is a good foundation for a better present and future.” It is my hope that the work of this new initiative will help the university gain important insights about our past and the enduring legacy of slavery—while also providing an ongoing platform for our conversations about our present and our future as a university community committed to having our minds opened and improved by learning.

Undoubtedly, there is much work to do. But both our progress and our aspirations in this area are a testament to remarkable effort and commitment from so many of you. I am particularly grateful for the contributions of the faculty committee and staff first convened under President Faust’s charge, which has provided an essential foundation for efforts moving forward. The experience of every member of our community matters, and each of us has the potential to shape the future of this institution through our work and our collaboration. This initiative will be an important next step for us all.
All the best,

Members of the Presidential Committee on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery will include:

Tomiko Brown-Nagin, Chair
Dean, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study
Daniel P. S. Paul Professor of Constitutional Law, Harvard Law School
Professor of History, Harvard University Faculty of Arts & Sciences
Sven Beckert
Laird Bell Professor of History, Harvard University Faculty of Arts & Sciences

Paul Farmer

Kolokotrones University Professor of Global Health and Social Medicine, Harvard Medical School 

Annette Gordon-Reed

Charles Warren Professor of American Legal History, Harvard Law School
Professor of History, Harvard University Faculty of Arts & Sciences
Evelynn Hammonds
Chair, Department of the History of Science, Harvard University Faculty of Arts and Sciences
Barbara Gutmann Rosenkrantz Professor of the History of Science, Harvard University Faculty of Arts and Sciences
Professor of African and African American Studies, Harvard University Faculty of Arts and Sciences
Meira Levinson
Professor of Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education
Tiya Miles
Professor of History, Harvard University Faculty of Arts & Sciences
Radcliffe Alumnae Professor, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study
Martha Minow
300th Anniversary University Professor, Harvard Law School
Maya Sen
Professor of Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School of Government
Daniel A. Smith
Lecturer on Ministry Studies, Harvard Divinity School
Senior Minister, First Church in Cambridge, Congregational, UCC
David R. Williams
Florence Sprague Norman and Laura Smart Norman Professor of Public Health, Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health
Chair, Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health
William Julius Wilson
Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor Emeritus, Harvard Kennedy School