The Report of the Presidential Committee on Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery — released by President Lawrence S. Bacow in April and backed by a historic $100 million commitment — included seven recommendations, among them a remembrance program that would “endeavor to identify the direct descendants of enslaved individuals who labored on Harvard’s campus and of those who were enslaved by Harvard leadership, faculty, or staff.”
An implementation committee, led by Martha Minow, Harvard Law School’s 300th Anniversary University Professor and a member of the Presidential Committee that produced the April report, has begun the initial work related to all the recommendations and will share updates as their efforts advance. On Wednesday, the committee announced that Richard Cellini has been appointed to lead the work related to the remembrance program.
An attorney, executive, and scholar of institutional accountability and the legacy of slavery, Cellini is well-known as the founder of the independent research institute that helped to locate, identify, and trace the direct descendants of 314 enslaved people sold in 1838 to fund Georgetown University. Cellini’s work on the Harvard project will focus on enabling direct descendants to “recover their histories, tell their stories, and pursue empowering knowledge.”
“History only answers the questions we ask,” Cellini said. “At Harvard, the University — the institution itself — is taking responsibility for identifying enslaved people and finding their direct descendants, living and deceased. And that’s very big news.”
The project is expected to be one of the largest of its kind and will engage the expertise of some of the world’s top genealogical and archival researchers. Cellini is working under the guidance of Harvard Radcliffe Institute Dean Tomiko Brown-Nagin, a historian of the Civil Rights movement and legal scholar who chaired the Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery committee.
“The work ahead will be challenging, but it is vital that it be done, and done right,” said Brown-Nagin, the Daniel P.S. Paul Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School and a professor of history. “Our efforts must be informed by the same standards of respect and scholarly rigor that have informed efforts to identify and certify descendants of other historical figures. This painstaking work will lay a foundation for meaningful steps toward repair.”
The work will aim to identify descendants — living and deceased — of those enslaved by University leaders, faculty, and staff. For the Georgetown University project, Cellini worked closely with the New England Historic Genealogical Society, the oldest and largest organization of its kind, known for its work with the Mayflower Society. NEHGS will also collaborate with Cellini on the Harvard effort.
Over the past 15 years, universities around the world have published reports and studies on their involvement in slavery. Through its genealogical effort, “Harvard is really taking it one step further,” said Cellini.
Cellini said that for the researchers and for the University, “The hard part is not the finding. The hard part is the looking.”
“There are a million reasons — emotionally, psychologically, financially, intellectually, spiritually, culturally — why we collectively — inside and outside Harvard — will find it difficult to look. But once we look, we find. And when we find, the whole world changes. So, in some sense Harvard has already overcome the biggest hurdle in this process, which is having the willingness and the courage to look.”
At Georgetown, Cellini, along with his team and many descendants and other volunteers, has documented the lives of 236 of the enslaved individuals sold to fund the institution and identified more than 10,000 direct descendants. More than 5,000 of these descendants are alive today, many living not far from where their ancestors were enslaved.
As for Harvard, “I predict that we will not only find descendants, but we will also find many of them in the Cambridge community and certainly in the Boston and the Greater New England community,” Cellini said. “I feel certain that we will find families who never really left Cambridge — and why should they? They’ve been here for hundreds of years. These descendant families, I believe, will be among the very oldest families in the city today. When I say that we’re going to go look for people, I think we’ll find some of them exactly where they’ve always been, which is right here in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We won’t have to look far.”
Cellini frames his work as “relearning American history the correct way for the very first time.”
“Too often, throughout this country and even throughout this University, we’ve only been taught half the story. The reality is far, far different. From the very beginning of the nation’s history and the history of Harvard University, Black people and Native Americans have played a vital role. It is our job to discover, document, and distribute history that better reflects the truth.”
“Richard Cellini will bring the same precision, integrity, and passion to his work heading the Legacy of Slavery Remembrance Program that he invested in his work at Georgetown with descendants, community volunteers, and scholars,” said Henry Louis Gates Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard. “The success of this program will rest on a foundation of meticulous genealogical and archival research, and no one is better equipped than Richard to lead that research. With his oversight, Harvard will be able to tell the story of descendants of slavery in America — and the story of America itself — with greater clarity and complexity.”
Researchers involved in the project will adhere to the gold-standard “Mayflower Standard,” named after the Mayflower Society and its decades-long quest to identify descendants of the 102 passengers and crew of the 1620 Mayflower voyage.
“What’s new here is not the method,” Cellini said. “What’s new here is the community that these standards and methods are being deployed to benefit.
“Every link in the chain must be supported by documentary archival evidence. In other words, these connections are not going to be based solely on DNA or solely on oral history or similarities in names or shared locations. Those circumstantial things can be helpful in pointing researchers back into the archival stack, but the evidentiary basis for concluding that an individual was enslaved by leaders, faculty, or staff and that so-and-so is a direct descendant will be the same evidentiary standard applied in the Mayflower context.”
There’s also an emotional challenge to doing such work. “This is heavy stuff,” Cellini said. “Even those of us who have spent years in this field find it emotionally and psychologically challenging. The history of slavery in this country is not a feel-good story, and it still shapes the present. There’s no Hollywood ending. And as you piece together the details of individual lives, you frequently encounter circumstances that are heartbreakingly sad. And it still has an impact today.”
Brown-Nagin agrees. “This work is very difficult for all involved. It can be quite emotional as individuals learn about tragic histories of exploitation and oppression. We need to respect that. So as Harvard undertakes its remembrance project, we must balance a needed sense of urgency with care: We must appreciate the human dimensions of this undertaking. Repair takes time, and it must be grounded in understanding, trust, and genuine engagement.”