Harvard and Slavery

Initiative on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery

Message from President Bacow, November 21, 2019

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,

Examining the History and Legacy of Slavery at Harvard

In the course of the past decade, Harvard University has begun to more fully examine the history and legacy of slavery at Harvard. In April 2016, President Faust and Congressman John Lewis unveiled a plaque on Wadsworth House honoring four women and men — Bilhah, Venus, Titus, and Juba — who lived and worked there as enslaved persons in the 18th century. At the time, President Faust said, “The past never dies or disappears. It continues to shape us in ways we should not try to erase or ignore. In more fully acknowledging our history, Harvard must do its part to undermine the legacies of race and slavery that continue to divide our nation.” In 2017, a memorial was erected at Harvard Law School to honor “the enslaved whose labor created wealth that made possible the founding of the Harvard Law School,” and urges in response that the School “pursue the highest ideals of law and justice in their memory.”

In 2007 and 2011, undergraduate research seminars led by Sven Beckert, Laird Bell Professor of History, began a deeper investigation into many aspects of Harvard’s ties to slavery. Since then, the University has sponsored several other efforts to acknowledge the legacy of slavery at Harvard. In 2016, then-President Drew Gilpin Faust appointed a faculty committee to advise the University in its pursuit of scholarship and research on Harvard’s history with slavery. The University hosted a national academic conference at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study on March 3, 2017, which explored the relationships between slavery and universities, across the country and around the world. An exhibition at the Harvard University Archives accompanied this conference. Harvard joined other higher education institutions as a member of the Universities Studying Slavery collaboration in 2019.