The release last week of a Brown University report detailing the school’s historical ties to slavery has brought to light slave money that other elite universities, including Harvard, took centuries ago.
Three years after it was appointed by Brown’s president, Ruth J. Simmons, a task force has released a report that documents how Brown benefited financially from the slave trade and how it can atone for its past—by constructing a memorial and creating a center dedicated to the study of racial issues.
In the 18th century, Brown’s founder, Rev. James Manning, owned a slave and the university took donations from slave traders and owners, including the university’s namesake family, according to The New York Times. One family member who later became the university’s treasurer, John Brown, was a slave trader.
Though Brown’s ties to slavery run deeper than other Ivy League schools, according to a reparations activist and a historian, another major Ivy League recipient of slave money was Yale University.
Deadria C. Farmer-Paellmann, a reparations activist who filed suit in 2002 against companies she alleges profited from slavery, claims in her suit that “money from the slave trade financed Yale University’s first endowed professorship, its first endowed scholarship, and its first endowed library fund.”
Harvard’s past ties to the slave trade are comparatively small but exist nonetheless, according to Andrew B. Schlesinger ’70, a historian who has written about Harvard.
Schlesinger said that while there is “no doubt” that Harvard received slave money, the role of slave money at Harvard was smaller than at Brown because the slave trade was much larger in Rhode Island than in Massachusetts.
“One of the things that makes Brown distinctive is that a lot of the slave traders lived down there in Newport,” said Schlesinger, referring to the costal city located just 30 miles from Brown’s campus in Providence. “Not many of the merchants up here in Boston were involved in the slave trade.”
A frequently cited case of Harvard’s slavery ties is that of the original benefactor of Harvard Law School (HLS).
The school was formed in 1817 “with the money left to Harvard by an Antiguan slave owner and planter, Isaac Royall,” Boston College law professor Daniel R. Coquillette said in a 2001 speech at HLS.
Royall had sold his slaves and plantations in the Caribbean in order to move to Medford, Mass., according to Coquillette, now a visiting professor at HLS.
Royall’s Medford estate—which includes the only remaining slave quarters in the northeast—is now a museum.
HLS has also continued to award the Royall chair to its professors.
Robert C. Clark held the Royall professorship during his tenure as HLS dean from 1989 to 2003, and David R. Herwitz, who retired this year, held the chair from 2003 to 2006. The title currently belongs to law professor Janet Halley.
At least one Harvard president also owned slaves during his tenure.
Benjamin Wadsworth, Class of 1690, brought two slaves to his new residence—Wadsworth House—when he became Harvard’s president in 1725, according to Schlesinger.
Derrick A. Bell Jr.—HLS’s first black tenured professor who left the faculty in 1990 to protest its lack of diversity—said that Harvard should follow Brown’s lead in appointing a panel to investigate the University’s ties to slavery.
“Rather than rely on the retelling of old stories, Brown appointed a commission to review its history and found that slavery contributed to financing and building the school,” said Bell. “[I] have heard similar stories about Harvard and hope that school officials will appoint a similar body to review the early history of the school.”
“If the stories of slave labor helping to build Harvard Yard and money earned from slavery aiding in its financing [are true], then suitable steps to both acknowledge the facts and make amends should be taken,” Bell added.
—Staff writer Paras D. Bhayani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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