Amid a national reckoning on race, Harvard is pressing forward with efforts to examine its historic ties to slavery and their lasting effects. New and expanded programming, grant-funded research, and subcommittees led by scholars from across the University are being launched by Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery, the presidential initiative anchored at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.
“As I’ve said before, we can’t dismantle what we do not understand, and we can’t understand the contemporary injustice we face unless we reckon honestly with our history,” said Radcliffe Dean Tomiko Brown-Nagin, who is directing the initiative. “This moment of profound pain and of passionate activism is showing us why it is so important to confront the roots of racism and racial inequality in this country.”
The initiative, announced by Harvard President Larry Bacow in 2019, has roots in a 2007 seminar led by Sven Beckert, Laird Bell Professor of History. Through detailed research, Beckert and a team of students found that enslaved people worked on Harvard’s campus as early as 1639 and in the homes of three Harvard presidents; that they included Africans and Native peoples; that prominent University alumni and benefactors derived their wealth from the labor of enslaved workers on plantations in the South and the Caribbean; that donations derived from slave-related industries persisted until the Civil War; and that Harvard Professor Louis Agassiz was a key proponent of influential scientific racist theories, among other discoveries.
The program will explore the University’s ties to slavery in greater detail through four subcommittees focused on the history of enslavement on and around Harvard’s campus; the University’s curriculum; links between Harvard, Antigua, and Caribbean nations; and the complex legacies of racism in medical education and experimentation. It will also build on the efforts of President Emerita Drew Faust and use Harvard’s vast intellectual resources to examine the roots of racial inequality at Harvard and beyond, as well as explore ways to help move the country forward, Brown-Nagin said.
“The racial injustice that Americans are faced with today is inextricable from the subject of slavery, and it is very much a part of what we’re thinking about and studying,” said Brown-Nagin. “By mobilizing Harvard’s faculty, students, and staff, and by actively engaging our broad community, we will shine a light on a difficult past that still shadows us today, and we will chart a brighter and more equitable path forward.”