Harvard President and Dean: Slavery Shaped the UniversityRoundup
tags: slavery, Harvard, reparations
Lawrence S. Bacow is president of Harvard University. Tomiko Brown-Nagin is chair of the Presidential Initiative on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery and dean of the Harvard Radcliffe Institute.
In his groundbreaking 1935 book, “Black Reconstruction in America,” W.E.B. Du Bois eloquently described the tragedy and triumph intertwined in American history. Nations “make hideous mistakes; they commit frightful wrongs; they do great and beautiful things,” he wrote. “And shall we not best guide humanity by telling the truth about all this, so far as the truth is ascertainable?”
American universities have long celebrated the idea that, in our pursuit of knowledge, we seek truth. Indeed, the motto of Harvard — our university and America’s oldest — is Veritas, Latin for truth. Yet in recent years, the gap between the stated values of universities and the truth of these institutions’ histories has become glaringly apparent — never more so than when we consider their entanglements with slavery.
Here is one such truth: Slavery powerfully shaped Harvard.
Contrary to popular narratives, during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, slavery was fundamental to New England’s economy. It was legal in Massachusetts, where Harvard is based, until 1783. By that time, Harvard was almost 150 years old.
We now know that Harvard leaders, faculty and staff enslaved more than 70 people of African and Native American descent. Some of these enslaved people labored at and for the university, including in the households of Harvard presidents.
Harvard’s ties to slavery and its legacies run deeper still: The labor of enslaved people enriched donors to the university, helping Harvard expand its infrastructure, grow its faculty and student body, and build its reputation. And prominent Harvard leaders and professors defended slavery, justified segregation, and promoted racial hierarchy and discrimination.
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