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Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery

Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery Initiative: An introduction from President Larry Bacow
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Dear Members of the Harvard Community,

Veritas is more than Harvard’s motto. It is the very reason we exist. Through research and scholarship we seek to uncover truth, whether in understanding the origins of life or the meaning of life. And through education we seek to equip our students to lead lives of meaning and value in which they embrace the pursuit of truth as a way to contribute positively to the world.

Our commitment to truth means that we must embrace it even when it makes us uncomfortable or causes us pain. It was in that spirit that I created the Committee on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery. The chair of this initiative, Tomiko Brown-Nagin, dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and the Daniel P.S. Paul Professor of Constitutional Law and Professor of History, has observed,

We cannot dismantle what we do not understand, and we cannot understand the contemporary injustice we face unless we reckon honestly with our history.

As the committee’s report powerfully documents, Harvard’s history includes extensive entanglements with slavery. The report makes plain that slavery in America was by no means confined to the South. It was embedded in the fabric and the institutions of the North, and it remained legal in Massachusetts until the Supreme Judicial Court ruled it unconstitutional in 1783.

By that time, Harvard was nearly 150 years old. And the truth is that slavery played a significant part in our institutional history. Enslaved people worked on our campus supporting our students, faculty, and staff, including several Harvard presidents. The labor of enslaved people both far and near enriched numerous donors and, ultimately, the institution. Some members of our faculty promoted ideas that gave scholarly legitimacy to concepts of racial superiority. And long after the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in the United States in 1865, Harvard continued discriminatory practices that sharply limited the presence of African Americans on our campus.

Harvard has made much progress in recent decades, but we have much work still to do. Today we are a far better, more interesting, and stronger community precisely because of our diversity.

But our recent progress must not obscure the reality of our past—or the continuing effects of the past on the present. The legacy of slavery, including the persistence of both overt and subtle discrimination against people of color, continues to influence the world in the form of disparities in education, health, wealth, income, social mobility, and almost any other metric we might use to measure equality. While Harvard does not bear exclusive responsibility for these injustices, and while many members of our community have worked hard to counteract them, Harvard benefited from and in some ways perpetuated practices that were profoundly immoral. 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.

In addition to shedding fresh and important light on Harvard’s entanglements with slavery and its aftermath, the report lays out a number of recommendations for how we as a community can redress—through teaching, research, and service—our legacies with slavery. Together they represent a helpful set of guideposts as we consider how best to approach the future in ways that properly reckon with our past. Each of these recommendations will require both careful thought as well as substantial resources to implement successfully. To begin the process of moving from recommendations to action, I am appointing an implementation committee to be chaired by Martha Minow, the 300th Anniversary University Professor, former dean of Harvard Law School, and a member of the Committee on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery. To provide the resources, the Corporation has authorized a commitment of $100 million for implementation. Some of these funds will be available for current use, while the balance will be held in an endowment to support this work over time.

I recognize that this is a significant commitment, and for good reason. Slavery and its legacy have been a part of American life for more than 400 years. The work of further redressing its persistent effects will require our sustained and ambitious efforts for years to come.

I strongly encourage every member of our community—students, faculty, staff, and alumni—to read the committee’s report. Many of you will find it disturbing and even shocking. Many of you may also be disappointed in learning painful truths about the history of an institution that you have come to know, respect, and even love. The Harvard I know, the Harvard of today, must strive to be better—to bring our lived experience ever closer to our high ideals. In releasing this report and committing ourselves to following through on its recommendations, we continue a long tradition of embracing the challenges before us. That, too, is a vital part of our history. Let us learn from this report and work together to recognize and redress the injustices that it so carefully documents.

Each of my colleagues on the Corporation joins me in this letter. We are indebted to Dean Brown-Nagin and the committee for their work, both in illuminating the stony road of the past and in pointing us toward constructive pathways ahead.


Lawrence S. Bacow

Timothy R. Barakett

Kenneth I. Chenault

Paul J. Finnegan, Treasurer

Mariano-Florentino (Tino) Cuéllar

Karen Gordon Mills

William F. Lee, Senior Fellow

Biddy Martin

Diana L. Nelson

Penny Pritzker, Senior Fellow Elect

David M. Rubenstein

Shirley M. Tilghman

Theodore V. Wells, Jr.