Harvard University is dedicating $100 million to create a fund to research and redress its “extensive entanglements with slavery,” university President Lawrence Bacow said Tuesday.
The university’s attempt to reckon with its past is detailed in a report titled “Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery,” which documents how the slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries “comprised a vital part of the New England economy, and powerfully shaped Harvard University.”
“The report makes plain that slavery in America was by no means confined to the South,” Bacow said in a message to members of the Harvard community.
“It was embedded in the fabric and the institutions of the North, and it remained legal in Massachusetts until the Supreme Judicial Court ruled it unconstitutional in 1783.”
Bacow said slavery and racism played a significant part in Harvard’s institutional history and enslaved people worked on campus and supported students, faculty, staff and university presidents. Their labor “enriched numerous donors and, ultimately, the institution.”
For nearly 150 years – from the founding of the university in 1636 until Massachusetts abolished slavery – Harvard presidents and others enslaved more than 70 people, according to the report, which lists the names of some in an appendix.
“Enslaved men and women served Harvard presidents and professors and fed and cared for Harvard students,” the report said.
The university and its donors benefited from the slave trade into the 19th century, the report said.
“These profitable financial relationships included, most notably, the beneficence of donors who accumulated their wealth through slave trading; from the labor of enslaved people on plantations in the Caribbean islands and in the American South; and from the Northern textile manufacturing industry, supplied with cotton grown by enslaved people held in bondage.”
The report said Harvard’s financial investments included “loans to Caribbean sugar planters, rum distillers, and plantation suppliers along with investments in cotton manufacturing.”
University presidents and professors also promoted “race science” and eugenics and carried out abusive “research” on enslaved people, the report said.
“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,” the university president wrote.
Dennis Lloyd, 74, a real estate developer who splits his time between Massachusetts and Georgia, is a descendant of Cuba Vassall, a woman who was born in Antigua and enslaved by the family of Isaac Royall Sr. A donation from Royall’s son in the late 18th century funded the first Harvard professorship of law. The Royall family had a sugar plantation in Antigua and moved to Medford, Massachusetts, following a planned slave revolt. They brought several slaves with them.
“I think it’s a step in the right direction,” Lloyd told CNN on Tuesday, calling Harvard’s plan an opportunity to promote “a better understanding of the history that has been lost … and stolen from African Americans as a result of slavery.”
The report includes recommendations to redress that legacy “through teaching, research, and service” and the commitment of $100 million for the creation of a legacy of slavery fund.
“Some of these funds will be available for current use, while the balance will be held in an endowment to support this work over time,” Bacow said.
The fund is intended to support the implementation of the report’s recommendations, including the expansion of educational opportunities for the descendants of enslaved people in the Southern US and the Caribbean, establishing partnerships with historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and identifying and building relationships with the direct descendants of enslaved people who worked at Harvard.
The report said the fund signifies the university’s acknowledgment “of wrongdoing and a responsibility to undertake a sustained process of repair: financial expenditures are a necessary predicate to and foundation for redress.”
Lloyd, a graduate of Howard University, praised the Ivy League university’s pledge to provide financial and educational support to the direct descendants of enslaved people and its vow to build ties with HBCUs.
“Harvard’s resources and pockets go very deep,” said Lloyd, a Vietnam War veteran. “Let’s see how everything is implemented.”
Harvard’s announcement comes as other universities across the nation attempt to reckon with their complicity with slavery.
“While Harvard does not bear exclusive responsibility for these injustices, and while many members of our community have worked hard to counteract them, Harvard benefited from and in some ways perpetuated practices that were profoundly immoral,” Bacow said.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism