Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts (via Wikimedia Commons)

A report published today by Harvard University acknowledges the institution’s ties to slavery and racial discrimination from its founding to the present. It identifies two important ways in which the prestigious school benefited from slavery: by directly enslaving people who labored on Harvard’s campus and by indirectly reaping the profits of slavery. The report also examines how professors and others affiliated with the university proselytized theories of racial difference that provided an intellectual backing for segregation that persisted well into the 20th century.

Key among its findings is that over 70 individuals were enslaved by Harvard presidents, leaders, faculty, and staff between 1636, when the university was founded, and 1783, when Massachusetts outlawed slavery — confirming that dozens more were enslaved by Harvard than previously known. Enslaved individuals served professors and administrators and looked after Harvard students, making it possible for the latter to pursue their versions of veritasHarvard’s motto since 1643, Latin for “truth.”

Meanwhile, the report highlights that even as the Northeast largely abolished slavery before the Civil War, the region remained heavily dependent on the continuation of slavery in the South. Harvard was not an exception, accepting donations from businessmen who built their fortunes on the slave trade, plantations reliant on the labor of enslaved people, and textile manufacturing that made use of cheap cotton. Harvard also directly invested in Caribbean sugar plantations, rum distilleries, and the cotton industry.

And for over a century after the Emancipation Proclamation, academic and administrative leaders at Harvard expounded flawed race science that nevertheless became the intellectual foundation of virulent segregation and apartheid at home and abroad.

Prominent Harvard professors and leaders “promoted ‘race science’ and eugenics and conducted abusive ‘research,’ including the photographing of enslaved and subjugated human beings,” the report says. Among those photographed were Renty and Delia Taylor, the enslaved ancestors of Tamara Lanier, a Connecticut woman who is suing Harvard over the rights to daguerreotypes held in the school’s Peabody Museum. The daguerreotypes of Renty and Delia, which the school has refused to return to Lanier, were commissioned in 1850 by Louis Agassiz, a Harvard professor and proponent of scientific racism.

A fallen statue of Louis Agassiz, the Harvard Professor who commissioned the daguerreotypes of Tamara Lanier’s enslaved ancestors in 1850. The statue, at Stanford University, famously fell and landed upside down during a 1906 earthquake. (via Wikimedia Commons)

These views went right to the top of the university’s leadership: Charles William Eliot, who was president from 1869 to 1909 and presided over the college’s transformation into the juggernaut that it is today, promoted eugenics, even allowing anthropometric measurements to be taken of Harvard’s own athletes. Throughout the 19th century, Harvard collected anatomical specimens that included the bodies of enslaved people, which were then used by scientists at the university as evidence of racial inferiority. 

In 2021, Harvard University President Lawrence Bacow formally issued an apology for the institution’s degrading collection practices, and a Steering Committee on Human Remains in Harvard Museum Collections was assembled to survey its holdings and determine an ethical path forward. Written records and artifacts pertinent to eugenics research remain in Harvard’s collections, and the names of enslavers remain memorialized on campus in buildings, statues, houses, and endowed positions — including former President Increase Mather, alumnus and minister William Brattle, and donor William Stoughton.

The report also explores the history of racial exclusion at Harvard throughout the 20th century. From 1890 to 1940, only about three Black people per year on average were enrolled. In 1960, only nine men among 1,212 freshmen were Black — and that was still a huge upswing compared to decades prior. 

“Hence, the truth — Veritas — is that for hundreds of years, both before and after the Civil War, racial subjugation, exclusion, and discrimination were ordinary elements of life off and on the Harvard campus, in New England as well as in the American South,” the report reads.

The report concludes with seven recommendations to the president and fellows of Harvard, including engaging with descendant communities, investing in educational opportunities for disenfranchised groups, and developing partnerships with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

Accompanying the publication of the report is a $100 million commitment by the university to study and redress its ties to slavery, including the establishment of an endowed “Legacy of Slavery Fund” that will work with Black and Indigenous descendant communities. 

Artist Xaviera Simmons’s statement addressing Harvard’s report along with an artwork from her 2021 series Because You Know Ultimately We Will Band A Militia (screenshot Valentina Di Liscia/Hyperallergic)

The multimillion-dollar fund comes as the school faces growing pressure from its community to not only acknowledge but also enact actionable measures in light of its oppressive past. When the university’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, which led the committee that authored the new report, announced a $5 million research initiative to examine the legacy of slavery at Harvard after Tamara Lanier sued the school, critics said it was insufficient and called for reparations.

“I don’t think studying ties to slavery is enough,” Caitlin Hopkins, a former Harvard lecturer who studied the school’s entanglement with slavery, told the Boston Globe last year. “Without reparations, what’s the point? Harvard can’t get credit for studying its history without changing its behavior in the present.”

Members of the Presidential Committee on Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery include Tomiko Brown-Nagin, dean of the Radcliffe Institute; American historian Annette Gordon-Reed, known for her scholarship on Sally Hemings; and Sven Beckert, a professor of history who first led a series of research seminars on Harvard’s legacy of slavery with undergraduates in 2007.

When the report was released today, some took to social media to highlight what they viewed as the hypocrisy of Harvard investing millions into new initiatives while retaining the daguerreotypes of Tamara Lanier’s ancestors.

“Unless/until @harvard releases the daguerreotypes of Delia and Renty to @tamaralanier, it’s all bullshit,” tweeted Jarrett Martin Drake, a PhD candidate in social anthropology at the school and vocal advocate of the #FreeRenty movement.

In a statement on Instagram, artist Xaviera Simmons, a former visiting professor at Harvard and the school’s inaugural Solomon Fellow, called for less scholarship and more “repairs, therapy, [and] trauma care.”

“We don’t need any more PHD’s or research papers or exhibitions for that matter talking about slavery and all the rest,” Simmons wrote. “Art work and academic work can do a lot but they can’t solve the foundational problems here tied to property and a dream held together by force and weapons and delusions of white supremacy on this beautiful Indigenous cared-for, enslaved-built land.”

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Jasmine Liu

Jasmine Liu is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University.