Report details how Harvard benefited from slavery, perpetuated racial inequality
University vows to identify, support descendants of slaves who laboured at Ivy League campus
Harvard University is vowing to spend $100 million US to research and atone for its extensive ties with slavery, the school's president announced Tuesday, with plans to identify and support the descendants of enslaved people who laboured at the Ivy League campus.
President Lawrence Bacow announced the funding as Harvard released a new report detailing many ways the Boston-area school benefited from slavery and perpetuated racial inequality.
The report, commissioned by Bacow, found that Harvard's faculty, staff and leaders enslaved more than 70 Black and Native American people from the school's founding in 1636 to 1783. It cautions that the figure is "almost certainly an undercount." Using historical records, researchers were able to identify dozens of enslaved people by name, along with their connection to the university.
"Enslaved men and women served Harvard presidents and professors and fed and cared for Harvard students," researchers found. "Moreover, throughout this period and well into the 19th century, the University and its donors benefited from extensive financial ties to slavery."
The report says the university "should make a significant monetary commitment, and it should invest in remedies of equal or greater breadth than other universities." But the report stops short of recommending direct financial reparations, and officials have no immediate plans for that kind of support.
Bacow said Harvard will attempt to redress its wrongs through "teaching, research and service." He is creating a committee to implement the report's suggestions.
Building on earlier research at Harvard, the report details how the nation's oldest and wealthiest university profited from the slave trade throughout its early history. It invested directly in the sugar and rum industries in the Caribbean, and the cotton and railroad industries in the United States. It also depended on wealthy donors who accumulated their wealth through the slave trade and industries that relied on it.
'Disturbing and shocking'
Later, after slavery was abolished, prominent scholars continued to promote concepts that fuelled ideas of white supremacy, the report says. It cites work by 19th century professor Louis Agassiz, who pushed discredited theories on "race science" and eugenics. Another scholar led a "physical education" program on campus that collected students' physical measurements to advance eugenic theories.
In his message, Bacow called the findings "disturbing and shocking," and he acknowledged that the school "perpetuated practices that were profoundly immoral."
"Consequently, I believe we bear a moral responsibility to do what we can to address the persistent corrosive effects of those historical practices on individuals, on Harvard, and on our society," he wrote.
The 130-page report included a series of recommendations that Bacow endorsed. The $100 million will be used to carry out the work, including some funding that will be available now and more to be held in an endowment. The university itself has an endowment of more than $50 billion US, the largest in the nation.
The report calls on Harvard to identify the direct descendants of enslaved people and engage with them "through dialogue, programming, information sharing, relationship building, and educational support."
"Through such efforts, these descendants can recover their histories, tell their stories and pursue empowering knowledge," the report said.
In acknowledgement of the enslavement of Native Americans, the report also calls on Harvard to build closer ties with New England tribes. Harvard should recruit more students from tribal communities, the report says, and organize a national conference promoting research on colonialism and the enslavement of Indigenous people.
The report calls on Harvard to help address racial inequities in the United States and the Caribbean, including through expanded education programs for underserved communities. And it urges the university to build closer relationships with historically Black colleges across the country, with funding to bring students and scholars to Harvard for up to a year at a time.
Harvard joins a growing number of U.S. universities taking steps to acknowledge and make amends for their involvement with slavery.
Georgetown University in 2019 promised to raise $400,000 US a year for the descendants of enslaved people sold by the school. The Princeton Theological Seminary created a $27.6 million US reparative endowment. The University of Virginia established scholarships for the descendants of enslaved people.
Harvard formally began exploring its ties to slavery in 2016, when former president Drew Gilpin Faust acknowledged that the school was "directly complicit in America's system of racial bondage." Faust organized a committee to study the topic and had a plaque installed on campus honouring enslaved people who laboured there.
Bacow commissioned the new report in 2019, building on that work.
"The Harvard that I have known, while far from perfect, has always tried to be better — to bring our lived experience ever closer to our high ideals," Bacow wrote. "In releasing this report and committing ourselves to following through on its recommendations, we continue a long tradition of embracing the challenges before us."