Tracy K.Smith and Dan Byers.

Photos by Andrew Kelly (left) and file photo by Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

Legacy of Slavery initiative seeks ideas for memorial

6 min read

Committee co-chairs Tracy K. Smith and Dan Byers look forward to input from artists, architects, others

The Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery Initiative has opened an invitation  for artists, architects, designers, multidisciplinary teams, and other creators to express their interest in conceiving ways to memorialize enslaved individuals on the Harvard University campus.

Last year, the Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery report recommended “that the University recognize and honor the enslaved people whose labor facilitated the founding, growth, and evolution of Harvard through a permanent and imposing physical memorial, convening space, or both.” For the past 10 months, the Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery Memorial Project committee has sought to define what a memorial could entail, options for where it could reside, and the process for its creation.

Committee co-chairs Tracy K. Smith, professor of English and African and African American Studies and the Susan S. and Kenneth L. Wallach Professor at Harvard Radcliffe Institute, and Dan Byers, the John R. and Barbara Robinson Family Director of the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, discussed with the Gazette the committee’s progress, including the invitation. Both co-chairs are members of the Harvard University Committee on the Arts.


Tracy K. Smith and Dan Byers

GAZETTE: Why is a memorial important?

SMITH: A memorial will bring a fuller and more honest sense of this institution’s history to the everyday engagement with the campus. This is a productive first step to thinking about how we live, consciously and unconsciously, with the weight of history, and also how we might continue to build, heal, and grow.

BYERS: It will be one of the most ambitious new additions to the campus in a long time, and offers the opportunity to introduce a whole new set of symbols and aesthetic languages into our campus’ life and conversations.

GAZETTE: How is the committee defining memorial?

BYERS: We aren’t looking for something that’s static and monolithic, but rather for something that creates an ongoing civic community forum, that invites activation or ritual — a site that encourages many ways to be with it. We’re hoping to hear from people who have deeply considered the way that artworks in public can shape space and behavior and reflection.

SMITH: It feels essential to invite the memorial’s potential creators to teach us how to see what they’re envisioning and what they’re hoping to activate and invoke. We seek to be receptive to a range of differing visions.

GAZETTE: What is the submission process and timeline?

BYERS: We will use a two-stage, transparent process to identify the best idea for bringing the campus memorial to life. The first stage is an open request for qualifications due on Feb. 20 that allows people from all moments in their careers and all levels of experience to tell us about themselves and their commitment to memorial work. Working with other University colleagues, the committee members will identify a set of finalists who will be invited to submit through a request-for-proposals process as well as come to campus to engage with community members. Invited proposals will be due in July and final decisions will be made by members of the memorial committee, community stakeholders, and members of the Harvard community, including leaders, faculty, and staff.

SMITH: The process itself will endeavor to create a sense of community that extends beyond faculty and staff at Harvard to include students and our Cambridge neighbors.

GAZETTE: One of the evaluation criteria for the memorial is “ongoing opportunities for action, ritual, and commemoration.” How do you envision this and why is this important?

BYERS: So often, once a memorial or a plaque is erected, it’s an indication that the work is done, that the engagement is over. We very much want the opposite experience.

SMITH: This sense of ongoing activation is a way of saying, “How can this creation maintain and radiate an aliveness that doesn’t go dull over time, and that continues to be relevant both to the particular history of enslavement as well as the questions and concerns of the approaching future?”

GAZETTE: Who will be reviewing submissions and how were they chosen?

BYERS: Right now, the review committee is all Harvard affiliates, including members from the memorial committee, Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery leadership, and others throughout the University. Throughout the process, we plan to bring in members of communities that are outside of the University.

SMITH: In forming the memorial committee, we sought out people from across regions of the University, with various fields of expertise and relevant relationships within and beyond Harvard. We’re also working actively with the larger Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery initiative to build relationships with students and Cambridge groups invested in similar forms of reckoning and commemoration.

GAZETTE: How do you see the artist/team interacting with the University?

BYERS: The finalists, once selected through this request for qualifications process, will have the opportunity to come to campus for several months to listen and learn from our community, to understand what is important to people who live and work and go to school here. We’re really hoping that the campus visits create an ongoing discussion around memorialization and the role that memorials can play in civic and public life. We expect there will be many conversations, many public presentations, and that this work of memorialization becomes a public part of the University’s life while the finalists are on campus.

SMITH: We also see opportunities for the finalists to spend time with classes engaged with questions of memorialization.

GAZETTE: Has a site been chosen for the memorial?

SMITH: A site hasn’t been selected yet. Working with campus planning, we have identified a number of potential sites. Ultimately, the chosen site has to rise to the occasion of the many things a memorial might do, be, and invite.

BYERS: We’re looking for a place that is of great importance and prominence to the campus but also offers the possibility for quiet, for reflection.

To learn more about the process around the memorialization, Harvard community members, including alumni, and local community members may contact