Campus & Community

Revealing webs of inequities rooted in slavery, woven over centuries

Tomiko Brown-Nagin, chair of initiative, reflects on history documented in Harvard report and the pioneers who emerged from it to force legal and social change

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Tomiko Brown-Nagin.

Through the report’s recommendations, Harvard can “begin anew and engage in remedies that seek to ameliorate the harms of slavery,” says Tomiko Brown-Nagin, who led the committee.

Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

A report issued Tuesday by a committee appointed by Harvard President Larry Bacow and led by legal scholar and historian Tomiko Brown-Nagin details the University’s deep connections to slavery in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries and to legacies of slavery well into the 20th century. It also illuminates how those ties “powerfully shaped Harvard” and suggests a range of actions the University can take to help “ameliorate the persistent educational and social harms that human bondage caused to descendants, to the campus community, and to surrounding cities, the Commonwealth, and the nation.” Harvard has pledged to provide long-term funding to address the initiative’s findings.

The Gazette spoke with Brown-Nagin, dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, about the report and the path forward. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.


Tomiko Brown-Nagin

GAZETTE: What should everybody know about Harvard’s ties to slavery?

BROWN-NAGIN: The report is comprehensive and traces three key ways in which Harvard is linked to slavery. The first is through the enslavement of human beings by Harvard leaders, faculty, and staff. Enslaved men and women were part of the Harvard community; they served Harvard presidents and professors and fed and cared for Harvard students. The second way is through Harvard’s connections to benefactors with deep and extensive financial ties to the slave trade, to slavery, and to slave economies in the American South and in the Caribbean. The third way involves the history of the University’s intellectual leadership. Some of Harvard’s prominent figures, at times, defended the institution of slavery, supported the system of racial segregation, and promoted racial hierarchy and subjugation. This persisted into the 20th century. In fact, it was only during the late 1960s and ’70s that the number of Black students on campus began to grow appreciably.

The report also highlights a fourth theme that I view as critically important. Many early Black Harvard and Radcliffe graduates, despite encountering discrimination on and off campus, became leaders who had an exceptional impact on public life and were instrumental to the struggle to undo legacies of slavery like Jim Crow.

“We must acknowledge the harm that Harvard has done. But it is also important that we do not — as has been done in the past — bury stories of Black resistance, excellence, and leadership.”

GAZETTE: Can you say more about the decision to highlight these leaders?

BROWN-NAGIN: The committee thought that it was important to lay bare the difficult aspects of Harvard’s history, but also speak to the resistance that is very much a part of Harvard’s legacy. I am aware that the history we trace in this report is deeply troubling. But it would be a great disservice to our community if the only message we took away was one of shame. We must acknowledge the harm that Harvard has done. But it is also important that we do not — as has been done in the past — bury stories of Black resistance, excellence, and leadership. These women and men are also part of our history, also part of our legacy.

In the report, we document both the history I’ve just described and the counter history of individuals who pushed back against slavery and discrimination. That counter history includes white Harvard affiliates, such as Charles Sumner, with whom a lot of people will be familiar (his statue sits on campus), as well as Black graduates such as W.E.B. Du Bois, who attended the College and was the first African American to receive a Harvard Ph.D. He was a monumental figure who famously said that he was “in Harvard but not of it,” and he played an outsized role in this country’s struggle for freedom through his scholarship and service, including his work as co-founder of the Niagara Movement that gave rise to NAACP, the nation’s oldest Civil Rights organization. Another individual we discuss is Charles Hamilton Houston, who is known as “the man who killed Jim Crow.” He was a graduate of Harvard Law School and helped to lay the groundwork for the landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.

Eva B. Dykes graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Radcliffe in 1917 and later became the first African American woman to complete the requirements for a Ph.D. in the United States, earning her degree from Radcliffe in 1921. She was an incredible scholar who became the chair of the English department at Oakwood University after working initially at Howard University. She analyzed attitudes toward Blacks and toward slavery among canonical Western writers, and we lift her up as an individual who, through her contributions to scholarship and education, was able to create important change.

Caroline Bond Day is another Radcliffe graduate whose story needs to be told. She studied under Du Bois at Atlanta University, entered Radcliffe in 1916, and earned her undergraduate degree in 1919. During her graduate research, she recruited more than 2,000 individuals from mixed-race families, compiling information about them for a thesis that pushed back against the theories of race scientists and eugenicists at Harvard and elsewhere who argued people of color were inferior to whites.

Each of these people struggled against racial oppression and endured discrimination right here at Harvard. But they also fought for human freedom, created legacies of professional leadership and civic engagement, and made profound contributions to the history of legal and social change in this country. We should be proud of those individuals and their legacies, and hold them up as powerful examples.

GAZETTE: President Bacow has repeatedly signaled his commitment to understanding the University’s ties to slavery as a basis for moving forward. Can you discuss how Harvard will be changed by the findings of the report?

BROWN-NAGIN: We are an institution of higher education dedicated to research and to the dissemination of knowledge. We are also, in our own motto, dedicated to truth. What we have done here is pursue truths that are painful. But the reality is that even when the truth is painful, we must seek it, we must divulge it, we must set an example of pursuing truth. And that is what we’re doing through the scholarship in this report.

Through the recommendations, we will touch and work to change lives, and we will engage with descendant communities. We lead with a commitment to leveraging expertise in education to try to address systemic inequities that affect descendant communities in this country and beyond. The remedies are designed to last in perpetuity, to outlast any president, any dean, any staff member, faculty member, or student; this commitment will endure. The recommendations will be institutionalized in a way that will enable generations of students, faculty, and staff to participate in bringing to life our commitment to addressing the legacies of slavery.

“The recommendations will be institutionalized in a way that will enable generations of students, faculty, and staff to participate in bringing to life our commitment to addressing the legacies of slavery.”

GAZETTE: Can you outline the recommendations?

BROWN-NAGIN: There are seven in total, and they’re rooted in the history we’ve documented and in our conviction as a committee that to be meaningful, remedies must be visible, lasting, grounded in a sustained process of engagement, and linked to the nature of the damage done. The recommendations are broad because they’re meant to leave plenty of room for meaningful engagement with individuals on campus, with the Harvard Schools, and with community partners who will help shape the work ahead. But they’re also substantive.

First and foremost, the recommendations target systemic inequities that have disproportionately affected descendant communities in the United States and in the Caribbean by expanding educational access and opportunity. When we talk about descendant communities, we are referring to communities like the one I grew up in, a community of African Americans who were all descendants of enslaved people. The formerly enslaved and their children, and their children’s children — in other words, generations — were mired in poverty, deprived of education, relegated to tenant farming and other forms of low-wage work. They faced racial discrimination that was perfectly legal well into the 20th century. Even after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, very little changed for most people because of continued structural inequality. To speak of descendant communities is to talk about Black people in communities where pervasive racial disparities and inequality remain as tangible manifestations — consequences of slavery and its aftermath.

As a result, it was and is extraordinarily difficult for people in these communities to get ahead. I just described the Black experience in parts of the American South, which I, as a native of South Carolina, know very well. But that’s just one example of a general phenomenon that also can be seen in cities across the country, including in Boston, D.C., Philadelphia, Chicago, and many other places to which Blacks migrated in search of opportunity. And of course there already were descendants of slavery in the North. There are also large descendant communities in Caribbean nations connected to the slave trade.

Another important recommendation is that the University try to identify and engage with direct descendants of individuals who were enslaved by Harvard leaders, faculty, and staff. We are seeking to give people the ability to know and tell their stories. Relatedly, the recommendations include ongoing support for research and public dissemination of information about slavery and its legacies, both at Harvard and more broadly, with faculty and students deeply involved in that work.

The recommendations also contemplate partnerships with Black colleges and universities and with tribal colleges. Harvard is committing to funding summer semesters and yearlong visiting appointments to Harvard by interested faculty and students from HBCU partner institutions and to supporting Harvard faculty and students who wish to visit those institutions. And we are also committing to pursue new partnerships with tribal colleges. All of those endeavors will include financial support. This approach is the product of deep reflection among the committee members, and we think that there are many paths forward in this area.

We also see the creation of a public memorial as a critically important component of our remedies. We’ve consulted with King Boston, an initiative honoring Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, and an architectural firm that has been involved in the creation of deeply moving memorials to enslavement. We mean for it to be imposing, something that students, faculty, staff, and the many visitors to Harvard’s campus can interact with and appreciate. And hopefully this work of art will move them to think critically about the history of the University, and indeed the history of our nation and the world.

GAZETTE: You mentioned supporting the direct descendants of enslaved individuals who labored on Harvard’s campus. How hard will it be for Harvard to identify direct descendants, as Georgetown has done, and what is the likelihood of success?

BROWN-NAGIN: We don’t know how successful we will be, and yet we are committed to that difficult work and have already begun to do that research. One issue is that our records date much earlier in history than those of other institutions that have launched similar efforts, which could present particular challenges. Colonial-era records can be sparse. And there is a wider range of individuals and circumstances represented in Harvard’s early history with enslavement than at some other institutions. We don’t know that our Legacy of Slavery Remembrance Project, which is what we’re calling it, will bear fruits in the deepest, most extensive way. And yet we are committed to doing our very best, because we think it’s important for descendants to be able to recover their histories, to tell their stories, to pursue empowering knowledge. And to the extent that we are able to find these descendants, we hope to engage them through dialogue, programming, information-sharing, and relationship-building.

GAZETTE: The recommendations are ambitious, but they don’t explicitly include monetary reparations. Could you say more about that decision and about the focus instead on education?

BROWN-NAGIN: We certainly discussed the notion of reparations in the committee and beyond it, and a range of thoughts driven by those discussions informed our decision to structure the commitment in this way.

There is no amount of money that could truly address the incalculable harms of slavery. That said, the commitment that the University is making is significant. One hundred million dollars has been allocated by the Harvard Corporation to implement the committee’s recommendations. Those funds are also meant to last in perpetuity. This is a long-term commitment, and we think that is vitally important. This history calls for deep, sustained engagement. We’re seeking to engage and support descendant communities through genuine partnership and by leveraging our expertise, our strengths, consistent with our mission as an institution dedicated to education, research, and service.

I want to point to a line in the report noting that during and after slavery, proponents of racial equality considered education “a liberating force.” Remedies that seek to close opportunity gaps and address disparities in education remain critically important. Quality educational opportunities and school systems are proven drivers of social and economic mobility, as any number of experts at Harvard can attest, including the economist Raj Chetty, who has explained so compellingly through big data precisely this point. The focus on education is consistent with the University’s mission. And I am happy to say that the Harvard Graduate School of Education will be a critically important leader of our efforts in this area. The School is led by Dean Bridget Terry Long, who is one of the nation’s foremost authorities on interventions needed to promote educational success, and it includes a host of faculty who are deeply knowledgeable about how to create world-class learning opportunities, which is what we aspire to in the recommendations. In short, I feel very confident that the recommendations are meaningful and that in pursuing a focus on expanding educational opportunity, we’ll be able to achieve significant impact.

GAZETTE: The report also notes that Indigenous history has special significance to Harvard’s founding and that Harvard presidents, staff members, and fellows enslaved Indigenous people. Could you talk more about that?

BROWN-NAGIN: The report documents the history of Indigenous enslavement at Harvard and Colonial-era dispossession, but it doesn’t discuss at length the significance of Indigenous history over time. This is because the experiences of Black and Indigenous descendants of slavery are sufficiently distinct that further deep research into the Native American experience is critical. We must examine the history of Indigenous slavery and colonialism and their legacies, which persist in Massachusetts and across the United States. The recommendations include financial support for that research, for a landmark conference that would bring to our campus scholars and tribal representatives to reckon with this history and its consequences, and for other tangible remedies. In this area, too, we have a set of commitments that during the process of implementation will be fleshed out in greater detail by a range of individuals, including members of the Harvard University Native American Program and others who are best positioned to envision what needs to be done.

“The reality is that even when the truth is painful, we must seek it, we must divulge it, we must set an example of pursuing truth. And that is what we’re doing through the scholarship in this report.”

GAZETTE: The committee was made up of scholars from very different fields. How did you guide the group in this work?

BROWN-NAGIN: I am honored to have been asked to lead this committee and to have engaged with such fantastic scholars, including well-known historians of slavery and individuals who have dedicated their careers to thinking about issues of discrimination and remedies for discrimination. We had many conversations about what the report should cover and what it should recommend. They were, in some instances, challenging conversations. And that’s precisely what they should have been. It’s in the great tradition of our institution to seek truth and to engage in thoughtful debates, and then ultimately to produce powerful research. Our recommendations reflect broad agreement about how this institution can begin anew and engage in remedies that seek to ameliorate the harms of slavery. They also reflect the importance of leveraging Harvard’s intellectual, reputational, and financial resources in pursuing these remedies, recognizing that past representatives of Harvard deployed those same resources to cause harm.

GAZETTE: Were there findings that were particularly surprising or especially revealing during the research?

BROWN-NAGIN: I went into this knowing quite a bit about slavery and its legacies in this country, but the process of uncovering the magnitude of the North’s ties to slavery was illuminating even to me. One of the purposes of this report is to educate the American public as well as the people on our campus about the reach of slavery. It was a global network of industries and individuals, and we document how the Northeast, which is usually thought of in terms of its role in the abolitionist movement and the American Revolution, is in fact deeply entangled with slave economies and connected in particular to the Caribbean — through enslavement of individuals but also through the production of goods by enslaved people. This scholarship helps to illuminate the extent to which the world, and different parts of the nation, were bound up in the system of human bondage and its consequences.

GAZETTE: What role do you see both Harvard students and the Harvard community more broadly taking in implementing these recommendations and supporting this work?

BROWN-NAGIN: Implementation will be chaired by committee member Martha Minow, the former dean of Harvard Law School and a world-renowned legal scholar and authority on human rights and how to address persistent injustices affecting racial and religious minorities. I can’t think of a better person to lead this effort.

Her committee will consider how to institutionalize Harvard’s commitment to addressing the harms of slavery. It will examine what this work will look like, where it will be situated, which Schools will be involved, and how those Schools will be involved. We expect that the effort to address our legacies of slavery will include the entire University. Just as the history that we document touches each part of Harvard, the remedies must as well. As we’ve briefed the deans of all of the Harvard Schools on our findings and recommendations, we’ve been heartened by their enthusiasm to engage in this work.

There will also be many opportunities for students to be involved in research and service to advance the remedies that we recommend, as well as opportunities for those from the broader Harvard community to engage in this vital work. So many members of our community have been involved in different ways in this effort. It began in student seminars taught by my colleague Sven Beckert almost 20 years ago. Law students who staged the Royall Must Fall campaign also helped drive this work. Similarly, we want the implementation of our recommendations to redress that history to be a community-wide endeavor. I am really excited and hopeful for what lies ahead for Harvard in this new era.