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Harvard leaders and staff enslaved more than 70 people, report finds

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Harvard University leaders, faculty and staff enslaved more than 70 individuals during the 17th and 18th centuries when slavery was legal in Massachusetts, according to a report chronicling the university’s deep ties to wealth generated from slave labor in the South and Caribbean — and its significant role in the nation’s long history of racial discrimination.

The “Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery” report, made public Tuesday, represents a landmark acknowledgment from one of the world’s most prestigious universities of the breadth of its entanglement with slavery, white supremacy and racial injustice for centuries after its 1636 founding. It also shatters any notion that Harvard, by virtue of its location in New England, was insulated from the evils of economic and social systems based on human bondage. The school pledged $100 million to redress the injustices.

Much of Harvard’s record on slavery and racial discrimination has been known for years. But the report sought to deepen that knowledge and tie it all together in an unsparing portrait of institutional failings. Among its findings:

  • Enslaved people of Indigenous and African descent played an integral role in the Harvard community in its first century and a half. The first Harvard schoolmaster, Nathaniel Eaton, enslaved a man known only as “The Moor,” who served the college’s earliest students. Various Harvard presidents, fellows, overseers, stewards and faculty members enslaved more than 70 people until slavery was outlawed in Massachusetts in 1783. The report did not state a precise count. But the university said the total appears to be 79, dozens more than previously known.
  • Five men who made their fortunes from slavery and slave-produced commodities accounted for more than one-third of donations or financial pledges Harvard received from private individuals during the first half of the 19th century. Among them was Benjamin Bussey, a sugar, coffee and cotton merchant who left Harvard an estate of $320,000 when he died in 1842. James Perkins, whose business included Caribbean slave trading, bequeathed $20,000 to Harvard in 1822.
  • Harvard was home to intellectuals who promoted “race science” and eugenics in the 19th and 20th centuries. Their theories and research, including the collection of photographs of enslaved people and nude students, provided crucial support for those seeking to justify white supremacy and other racist ideologies. The university’s museum collections also hold human remains believed to be from Indigenous people and enslaved people of African descent.

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The report was produced by a faculty committee convened by Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow in 2019. Many who read the report will find it “disturbing and even shocking,” Bacow said in a statement.

“Harvard benefited from and in some ways perpetuated practices that were profoundly immoral,” Bacow said. “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.”

Harvard is among the latest major universities to engage in a public reckoning with their role in slavery, a trend that emerged after Brown University published a soul-searching report in 2006 on its ties to the transatlantic slave trade. Georgetown University, the University of Virginia and William & Mary, among others, have also dug deeply into their slavery-stained past in recent years. A group called Universities Studying Slavery, based at U-Va., counts about 90 members (including Harvard) in the United States and abroad.

Some universities, including Georgetown and William & Mary, have apologized in recent years for their roles in slavery. Others have not. Bacow’s statement stopped short of an apology on behalf of Harvard, and the university declined to comment on that point. But Bacow announced that the university will set aside $100 million for initiatives, including an endowment, to respond to the report’s findings.

The report recommended an expansion of partnerships with historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Under this plan, Harvard would pay for HBCU faculty members to spend a summer, semester or school year in visiting appointments on the Cambridge campus, and Harvard professors would be able to do the same at HBCUs. The report also envisioned that HBCU students would be invited to spend a summer or one or two semesters at Harvard during their junior year — with financial aid from Harvard. Juniors at Harvard could spend time at HBCUs as well. Students in those programs would be known as Du Bois Scholars, honoring the civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois, who in 1895 became the first African American to earn a PhD from Harvard.

Tomiko Brown-Nagin, dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, who chaired the committee that produced the report, said many at the university are excited by the proposal to work more with HBCUs. The nation owes the historically Black schools a debt, she said. “Despite their benefits to the country, HBCUs have been underfunded,” Brown-Nagin said in an interview, “and that itself is a reflection of slavery and its legacies.”

The report also proposed that the university take steps to help remedy educational inequities among communities of descendants of enslaved people, including in the South and in the Caribbean, working with schools, community colleges, tribal colleges and other institutions.

“We recommend a particular focus on the creation, expansion, and dissemination of world-class learning opportunities — including curricular and pedagogical innovations, expanded access to existing resources, and outstanding teacher training — especially to support historically marginalized children and youth from birth through high school and college,” the report said.

Harvard has previously acknowledged significant connections to slavery.

In 2016, Drew Gilpin Faust, the university’s president, declared that “Harvard was directly complicit in America’s system of racial bondage” from its earliest days until 1783, and that the university was “indirectly involved through extensive financial and other ties to the slave South up to the time of emancipation.”

That year, Faust appeared with U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, the late civil rights leader, to unveil a plaque at Harvard’s Wadsworth House that commemorates four enslaved people — named Titus, Venus, Juba and Bilhah — who lived there in the 18th century and worked for two Harvard presidents.

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The report released Tuesday notes: “Yet more people were enslaved by Harvard’s stewards and, in this capacity, likely served Harvard’s students and maintained its campus.” One 18th-century steward, Andrew Bordman, enslaved at least eight people. Their names are listed as Cuffe; Rose; Jane “of Rose”; Flora “of Rose”; Jeffrey “of Rose”; Cesar “of Rose”; Lucy; and Peter.

With new findings on the wider scope of Harvard’s ties to slavery, the report recommended further steps to honor enslaved people whose labor helped found and grow the university. Harvard should create “a permanent and imposing physical memorial, convening space, or both,” the report said.

The report also recommended that the university seek to identify direct descendants of enslaved people who worked on the campus or were enslaved by Harvard leadership, faculty or staff. Harvard should, the report said, “engage with these descendants through dialogue, programming, information sharing, relationship building, and educational support.”

The report comes at a crucial time for Harvard. The university is defending its race-conscious admissions policy in a case that offers the Supreme Court’s conservative majority an opening to curtail affirmative action. Harvard, the report said, has been “a champion of diversity in higher education” since the 1970s and provides major financial aid to students of all backgrounds.

But for generations, the report acknowledges, the university contributed to racial discrimination.

In the mid-19th century, Louis Agassiz, a prominent Harvard professor of zoology and geology, espoused theories concluding, according to the report, that Black people were “at the bottom of a racial hierarchy ordained in nature.” Agassiz commissioned a photographer to take daguerreotype images in 1850 of seven enslaved people. Critics question Harvard’s right to ownership of those images. They are held in the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology but are not on public display.

“Race science” and eugenics — a concept of selective racial reproduction, now discredited — gained currency at Harvard in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Charles William Eliot, president of Harvard from 1869 to 1909, authorized intrusive physical examinations and measurements of student-athletes in the pursuit of what a gymnasium director called “race improvement,” according to the report. Eliot also said in 1909 that “there should be no admixture of racial stock” and made other statements viewed as supportive of segregation.

Abbott Lawrence Lowell, Eliot’s successor as president, oversaw discriminatory admission policies in the early 20th century, including well-documented efforts to exclude Jewish students. Under Lowell, there was also controversy in 1922 over whether the tiny number of Black students at Harvard would be allowed to live in freshman dormitories central to the residential education program.

“The community Lowell sought to build included whites only,” the report said. Governing boards eventually overturned his exclusionary policy, the report said, after press attention and pressure from students, alumni and activists.

Overall, the report found, about 160 Black men matriculated at Harvard’s undergraduate college from 1890 to 1940, an average of little more than three per year and 30 per decade. “Such vanishingly small numbers frequently left Black men isolated and marginalized on campus,” the report said.

This year, Harvard has said, more than 15 percent of students admitted to the Class of 2026 identified as Black or African American.

Many on campus say introspection about Harvard’s past is essential.

“It’s time to document what is our legacy,” Evelynn M. Hammonds, chair of the department of the history of science, said in a video released with the report. “We have to turn around and ask ourselves: ‘What were we doing? Why were we doing it? What does it mean for who we are now?’”

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