Campus & Community

Initiative on legacy of slavery at Harvard picks up steam

Royall House.

In the 18th century, the Royall House was home to the largest slaveholding family in Massachusetts. It was a bequest from Isaac Royall Jr. that funded the establishment of Harvard Law School in 1817. In 2016, the Harvard Corporation approved the removal of the Law School’s shield, which was derived directly from the Royall coat of arms.

Courtesy of Special Collections, Fine Arts Library, Harvard University

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Radcliffe-based program rolls out programming, research efforts, panels

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.”

Tomiko Brown-Nagin.

Radcliffe Dean Tomiko Brown-Nagin.

Kris Snibbe/Harvard file photo

Hosting timely discussions will be key to that process.

The initiative launched a number of virtual presentations in response to protests this spring over the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the spread of the deadly coronavirus.  Scholars, along with thousands of viewers, convened over Zoom to discuss racial and economic inequities in policing, mass incarceration, health care, education, and the economy.

And along the way connections were made to the nation’s original sin. In recent weeks, Brown-Nagin led a conversation with the founder of the 1619 project, Nikole Hannah Jones, and Harvard’s Tiya Miles moderated a discussion titled “The Enduring Legacy of Slavery and Racism in the North.”

Miles, a member of the faculty committee guiding the effort, said she, along with her co-chairs of the subcommittee on campus and community, will focus on developing recommendations for “materializing the [initiative’s] research and findings on our streets, in our neighborhoods, and on our campus.”

“We aim to create opportunities for meaningful engagement that will address this difficult history and enrich all of our lives with the remembrance of Black and Native American enslaved people who contributed to the building of this University, the city of Cambridge, and surrounding estates and towns — not by choice, but by force,” said Miles, a professor of history at Harvard and Radcliffe Alumnae Professor who plans to engage with students, community members, staff members, and descendants of enslaved people to further the work.

“As members of this intellectual community, it is our duty to draw as near as we can to the truth and to share what we find with as many people as possible,” said Miles. “By addressing Harvard’s relationship to slavery, we recognize an important facet of our University’s history, which is in many ways interconnected with the history of the country and the world. This endeavor furthers knowledge of the past and our present, allowing us to chart more informed and just futures.”

Tiya Miles.

Professor of History and Radcliffe Alumnae Professor Tiya Miles.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

For Brown-Nagin, much of the initiative’s strength lies in its ability to bring a range of perspectives to bear on Harvard’s history and legacy of slavery. Fourteen experts representing each of Harvard’s professional Schools and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences will help lead the program.

“It’s important the steering committee reflects all Schools, all units of the University, because this history is relevant to every part of the institution,” said Brown-Nagin, who is also a legal historian, expert in constitutional law and education law policy, and Daniel P.S. Paul Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School. “The fields of law, policy, medicine, religion, education, public health, business, design, and the range of disciplines represented in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences — all of these approaches, methodologies, and perspectives on slavery and its legacy are important to pursuing this research in a deep and meaningful way.”

Martha Minow, the 300th Anniversary University Professor and a member of the faculty committee, is helping lead a subcommittee focused on curriculum. She said that she and her co-chairs along with graduate student researchers are consulting with students, faculty, and staff “about the kinds of resources they would like to see, for use in settings ranging from orientation in the individual Schools and programs to elective courses.”

“We hope to develop plans for creating and sustaining concerted work, useful across the University,” said Minow, “so every member of the community and visitors to the community can come to know and learn more about the legacies of slavery at Harvard.”

“As members of this intellectual community, it is our duty to draw as near as we can to the truth and to share what we find with as many people as possible.”

Tiya Miles

Throughout the coming year the Radcliffe-based initiative will continue to feature a range of virtual conferences, discussions, and public programs. It will also fund novel research and creative work by Harvard faculty and students. Current grant-funded projects include a study of how slavery and capitalism conditioned Harvard’s expansion into a research university in the late 19th century; an examination of how Mather House came to be named after Increase Mather, an owner of enslaved peoples; research involving the role of slavery in the development of various economic tools utilized in undergraduate economics courses at Harvard; and a study of Harvard’s ties to the modern prison industry.

The work, said Brown-Nagin, “needs to be understood as an area of research and inquiry for students as well as scholars,” and is “part of a broad and deep educational experience.”

The committee also plans to produce a report during the 2021–22 academic year outlining Harvard’s ties to slavery in greater detail, along with a list of recommendations. But in a recent email to members of the Radcliffe community, Brown-Nagin emphasized that the critical work of the initiative will continue long after the report is completed.

“The legacies of slavery and racism that shadow our society and our University reflect a complex history,” she wrote. “These dynamics did not emerge overnight, nor will they be quickly disentangled.”