Campus & Community

‘Working … to give people back their stories’

Cellini details how Slavery Remembrance Program is tracing lives, families of Africans, Native Americans who were enslaved by Harvard leaders, labored on campus

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Richard Cellini

Richard Cellini, who heads up the Harvard Slavery Remembrance Program, believes his work will help dispel the myth that the New England region did not play a significant role in slavery or contribute to the erasure of countless family histories.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Since his appointment to lead the Harvard Slavery Remembrance Program in November 2022, Richard Cellini has been building a team of researchers and mapping out a plan for researching and assembling the family trees and stories of descendants of enslaved individuals who labored on campus and those who were enslaved by University leaders, faculty, or staff. It’s an arduous process, according to Cellini, noting that Harvard is just in the beginning stages of the work.

The process will include researching individuals of both African and Native American descent, and will require meticulous investigation into archives on and off Harvard’s campus. Partnerships with New England historical associations, cultural organizations, and learned societies will be essential. Cellini and his team will also comb the records of local municipalities, churches, and libraries for clues and information about the lives, locations, and circumstances that will give texture, vitality, and context to these family stories.

Cellini believes this work will also help dispel the myth that the New England region did not play a significant role in slavery, profit from human trafficking, or contribute to the erasure of countless family histories.

Cellini recently spoke with the Gazette about how the work of the Harvard Slavery Remembrance Program is getting underway. The interview was edited for clarity and length.


Richard Cellini

GAZETTE: Remind us again of the goals of the Harvard Slavery Remembrance Program and how it fits within the Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery initiative.

CELLINI: We’re working to help give people back their stories — one family at a time.

To accomplish this, the Harvard Slavery Remembrance Program is doing two big things. One is deeper-dive research into exactly who (by name) was enslaved on Harvard’s campus, and by Harvard leaders, faculty, and staff. Our second focus is to trace their direct descendants, living and deceased.

We’re building on the work of the Presidential Committee on Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery. And like the Presidential Committee, we’re asking very particular questions that have been asked all too rarely in the University’s history.

GAZETTE: What is the process for identifying direct descendants of these individuals?

CELLINI: We apply what’s known as the Mayflower standard, or more technically, the Genealogical Proof Standard. This is a widely recognized, archivally based set of standards for proving the genealogical descent of specific individuals to the satisfaction of academic historians and knowledgeable members of the general public.

The essence of the Genealogical Proof Standard is the development of documentary evidence at every step in the genealogical chain of descent establishing the connection between a specific ancestor and his or her specific descendants. The methodology for proving the lineage of enslaved people is identical to the one used to establish the lineage of Mayflower passengers.

GAZETTE: What is the first step?

CELLINI: The research process begins with the enslaved ancestor. We must identify each particular enslaved person with specificity, so that when we meet up with that person again in the historical record, we know it’s the same person. You don’t need somebody’s full biography, but you need enough specificity to know that you’re talking about a particular historical person who was enslaved at a particular time and in a particular place.

The second step is to search the historical record for documentary evidence of that person’s direct descendants — children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Once you find the first generation of descendants, you look for their descendants, and so on. You trace that line as close to the present day as possible. Some lines will come to a natural end long before the present era. But in a great many instances we will find direct descendants who are alive and well today.

“We’ve taught ourselves to believe that looking is futile. There’s an enormous amount of documentation about Black communities, Black families, and enslaved people. If we look, we can find. And when we find, the whole world changes.”

GAZETTE: Where are you and your team in that process?

CELLINI: We’re at the beginning. We have shared an initial list of enslaved individuals with the New England Historic Genealogical Society. They are in the process of taking those names and developing profiles for each person.

Ancestor profiling is probably the most important step in our research process because everything else follows from the quality and strength of that profile. Once we have prepared an adequate profile on a given enslaved individual, we immediately start looking for that person’s direct descendants. In several cases, the active search for descendants has already begun. Substantial progress has already been made.

GAZETTE: Is tracing African American ancestry more challenging than other kinds of genealogy, and if so, in what ways?

CELLINI: Yes and no.

Let’s start with no. This work is much more feasible than most people, including academic historians, think. There are myths that enslaved people didn’t have last names or families (because they weren’t allowed to get married) or sacramental records (because they couldn’t be baptized, confirmed, married, or buried in the church). It turns out that none of these things are true.

Enslaved people had proper first names and in a great many instances proper last names. Many were married, baptized, confirmed, and buried in churches. They formed stable families. Yes, those families were frequently destroyed by slavery, but Black families and enslaved families were incredibly resilient over time. Overall, there is an enormous amount of documentation about enslaved people and their families — both before and after emancipation.

When it comes to finding enslaved ancestors and their descendants, the hard part is not the finding; it’s the looking. We’ve given ourselves a million reasons not to look. We’ve taught ourselves to believe that looking is futile. But the archival record contains a vast amount of reliable information about Black communities, Black families, and enslaved people. If we look, we can find. And when we find, the whole world changes.

Now, in some respects, Black genealogy is more difficult than other forms of genealogy. First and foremost, very little of the documentation I’ve referred to has been digitized, so that makes Black families harder to research, both before and after emancipation.

Second, historical records often misstate the ages and birth dates of Black people who lived during slavery times. Documentation created before 1865 often gives the impression that Black people didn’t age or aged more slowly than everyone else. In many record sets, specific Black people stay the same age for substantial periods or even grow younger over time. Why? Because that made them more economically valuable in the eyes of the white people who purchased and sold them.

Finally, Black genealogy requires us to contend with quite a bit of variation in the spelling (or misspelling) of first and last names. This means our researchers have to be a little more flexible and imaginative than other researchers. Enslaved people’s names were often written in phonetic fashion, so when reading old documents you have to sound a name out in your head before you decide whether or not it’s the same name you’ve been looking for.

Those are nontrivial challenges, but they can be overcome with adequate time, effort, and expertise. Black genealogy is a recognized specialty within the larger fields of academic history and African American studies. It needs to be taken seriously and conducted properly.

GAZETTE: Will the search for descendants of enslaved Native Americans present different challenges?

CELLINI: Again, yes and no.

The search for enslaved Indigenous people and their families often involves consulting precisely the same historical records used to identify enslaved Black people and their kin.

Boston and Cambridge were very small communities in the 17th and 18th centuries. Archival records from this period are finite in number. For example, the early records of the Harvard Corporation contain numerous references to specific Indigenous people — after all, Native Americans played an important part in the life of Harvard College in the 1600s.

However, these same records also contain references to specific enslaved Black people, and white people as well. Early Harvard records invariably contain references to all kinds of people, often on a single page. Mostly because there were so few people around to begin with.

On the other hand, when conducting our research, we are always mindful of practices and circumstances that are distinctive to Native American families. For example, we are alert to differences in family structures, naming conventions, adoption practices, and kinship networks. Our understanding of Native American families must hew closely to the definitions and distinctions embraced by the people who built those families in the first place. We must not be more restrictive in defining Indigenous and Black families than the families themselves.

GAZETTE: How are you approaching engagement with descendant communities?

CELLINI: At its best, Harvard has a long and distinguished tradition of giving courteous and appropriate welcome to people and visitors from a variety of different cultures, traditions, circumstances, and locales. The Harvard Slavery Remembrance Program will do the same.

Preparation is a critical part of community engagement, Harvard-style. It is right and proper that we set our own house in order before we engage with individual descendants and their families. We must do so as a sign of our respect not just for descendants, but for their enslaved ancestors as well.

At a minimum, Harvard has an institutional responsibility to know what’s in the archival record both inside and outside the University. When descendants visit Harvard, they naturally want and expect to see (and even touch) original records documenting the lives of their ancestors and their larger cultural history. We must be prepared to meet these expectations as well as we possibly can. This will take time and forethought, but basic notions of courtesy and respect demand that we make the effort.

“This is not a gift that Harvard will hand down from the archives to Black people, Black families, and Black communities. This is a gift that Harvard will develop in close collaboration with Black people, Black families, and Black communities. Together, we will share it with the world.”

GAZETTE: What are the key lessons you learned from the Georgetown Memory Project that you will leverage for this work at Harvard?

CELLINI: First and foremost, the Georgetown work revealed to me the incredible resilience of Black families. Black family structures are among the strongest, most resilient, most stable entities in American culture. As one Georgetown descendant said to me, “When the only thing you’ve got is your faith, your family, and your name, you better believe you hold onto them with all your might. Our survival depended on us maintaining our connection to these things.”

In many Black families, names are remarkably persistent over long stretches of time. First and last names. One of the ways you know you’ve found the family you’re looking for is the recurrence of particular first and last names across multiple generations.

In the case of first names, Black families often honor a revered patriarch or matriarch by passing down that person’s name long after the original holder has vanished from memory. Families may not always know why a particular first name persists, but it persists nonetheless. Archival research often reveals that such names were originally possessed by enslaved ancestors who endured especially brutal hardship or played a remarkable role in the family’s ongoing struggle for freedom and human agency.

“We’ve taught ourselves to believe that looking is futile. There’s an enormous amount of documentation about Black communities, Black families, and enslaved people. If we look, we can find. And when we find, the whole world changes.”

The Georgetown work also proves that Black surnames, whatever their origin, often persisted across multiple generations, geographic locations, and slave owners. Even when people escaped or self-emancipated, they often maintained their surname. That’s one of the ways they established and maintained family continuity under extremely adverse circumstances.

Above all else, the Georgetown work taught me that it is vitally important to collaborate with and get input from descendant families. This work cannot be done in isolation. This is not a gift that Harvard will hand down from the archives to Black people, Black families, and Black communities. This is a gift that Harvard will develop in close collaboration with Black people, Black families, and Black communities. Together, we will share it with the world.

GAZETTE: What does this work mean to you personally?

CELLINI: Wow, that’s a big question. This work has transformed my life. It’s made me a different person.

I’ve learned there is no “us” and “them.” There’s only us. And throughout American history, there has only ever been us. From America’s very beginning, it’s always been the same bunch of people on the ground, making history happen on a day-to-day basis. The mistake is thinking that some of those people are less valuable than others, and then erasing them from the historical frame.

Black history is American history. Indigenous history is American history. We cannot understand the history of any aspect of America, including Harvard University, without first understanding and appreciating the vital contributions made by Black and Indigenous people.

Black and Native American families have been an integral part of this country from the very first days. They are an essential part of everything we cherish today. If you love American history, Black and Native American history are just more of what you love.

This is the primary lesson I’ve drawn from the study of the lives enslaved people and their families. It is perhaps the greatest gift I will ever receive.