Harvard University houses the remains of over 22,000 people. (via Flickr)

The Harvard Crimson student newspaper says it has obtained a leaked draft report in which Harvard University acknowledges that it holds the remains of four likely enslaved people not previously accounted for, bringing the total human remains of possibly enslaved people in the school’s collections up to 19.

Previously, the university had only acknowledged the remains of 15 individuals of African descent who were likely enslaved. The recently discovered remains are of people from Brazil and the Caribbean. The draft report also says that Harvard still houses the remains of 7,000 Native Americans, which the university had previously admitted and whose “stewardship” it pledged to prioritize.

A Harvard spokesperson declined to provide Hyperallergic with a copy of the draft report.

“Our collection of these particular human remains is a striking representation of structural and institutional racism and its long half-life,” reads the draft’s introduction, according to the Crimson‘s June 1 reporting on the draft.

The draft, dated April 19, was produced by the university’s Steering Committee on Human Remains in Harvard Museum Collections, a group formed in January 2021 and comprised of 16 scholars and museum professionals.

In a statement announcing the committee last year, Harvard President Lawrence Bacow said that the university has the remains of over 22,000 people, mostly in the collections of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology and the Warren Anatomical Museum. The statement also says that Harvard holds “one of the largest collections of American Indian remains in the country.”

According to the Crimson, the draft report urges the university to return the remains of the enslaved people to their descendants or to communities of descendants. It also insists that the university should speed up the return of the remains of Native Americans to their tribes or descendants, which has been required since 1990 by the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).

“For too long, these remains have been separated from their individuality, their history, and their communities,” reads the report, adding that provenance research will require community consultation and might include DNA analysis.

“The best outcome of provenance research would be identification of lineal descendants but, if that is not possible, research should aim to ascertain descendant or affinity groups that have a direct social, emotional, family, or place-based connection to the individual, that is people who feel a direct responsibility or interest in the individual themselves,” the reported draft reads.

Last January, the university issued a formal apology on behalf of President Bacow and the Peabody Museum for “not confronting our historic collecting practices and stewardship of all of these human remains” and for its “failure as an institution to face the ethical and moral issues that undergirded the practices that brought them to our museum.”

That apology stated that Harvard had only returned the remains of 3,000 Native American individuals of the 10,000 the university once held.

The Peabody Museum has a committee dedicated to returning the remains of Native Americans, and says that since October 2021, it has “developed a systematic and comprehensive program to administer NAGPRA.” But the leaked text appears to show that since the January 2021 apology, little progress has been made in actually returning the remains.

In a statement shared with Hyperallergic, the steering committee’s chair Evelynn M. Hammonds said that the Crimson‘s publication of the leaked draft was “deeply frustrating.”

“Releasing this draft is irresponsible reporting and robs the committee of finalizing its report and associated actions, and puts in jeopardy the thoughtful engagement of the Harvard community in its release,” Hammonds said.

The leaked draft comes as Harvard has begun to publicly reckon with aspects of its racist history. Last month, the university released a report that acknowledged its role in slavery, disclosing that Harvard enslaved over 70 individuals.

The report also detailed Harvard’s racist practices after Massachusetts outlawed slavery in 1783: It outlined how Harvard continued to benefit financially from slavery in other states, how its academics furthered racist pseudo-science, how it continued racist practices in its admissions processes, and how the university continues to honor eugenicists and slaveholders.

The report was accompanied by a $100 million promise to study and address the university’s legacy of slavery, but some critics felt the commitment was insufficient. In an op-ed for Hyperallergic, Harvard PhD candidate Franco Paz, who worked as a researcher for the Committee on Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery, wrote that the university “still, to this day, profits from exploitative, coercive labor regimes.” 

Harvard has also yet to return the photographs of Tamara Lanier’s enslaved ancestors, part of the Peabody Museum collection and commissioned in 1850 by professor Louis Agassiz, who used them as part of a eugenics campaign. After asking the university for the photographs “ad nauseum,” Lanier sued the university in 2019. The lawsuit is ongoing.

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Elaine Velie

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.

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