Seminar Studies Slave Ties

This is the first in a two-part series.  Part two runs in The Crimson tomorrow, April 25.

Nearly three centuries ago, University President Benjamin Wadsworth, Class of 1690, moved into the yellow-clapboard house in Harvard Yard. With him were two slaves.

Few students stop to consider who occupied Old Yard, but an examination of Harvard’s past reveals a history of entanglements with slavery—a history that is just now coming to light because of a four-person research seminar taught this fall by History professor Sven Beckert.

The course examined both financial ties—the ways in which the University might have profited from slavery and the slave trade—and personal ties—how individuals connected to Harvard supported slavery or worked to abolish it.


Harvard’s most prominent tie to slavery lies not at the College but at Harvard Law School.

In 1700, a 28-year-old man named Isaac Royall established a sugarcane plantation on the island of Antigua in the West Indies. Royall made much of his fortune from the Atlantic Triangle Trade, which dealt in sugar, rum, and slaves.

Royall left the West Indies in 1732 to retire to his beloved Medford, Mass. Seven years later, he died and left his fortune—and his Caribbean sugar plantation—to his son, Isaac Royall, Jr.

The younger Royall, who served on an administrative committee at Harvard, would later donate over 2,100 acres of land to Harvard, and also leave funds to establish what is now the Royall Professorship of Law, the first endowed chair at the Law School.

Catherine S. Manegold, a research fellow and resident at Harvard’s W.E.B. DuBois Institute last year, is currently doing research for a book entitled “Ten Hills Farm,” named for the Medford property which Royall Jr. purchased with the profits from the Antiguan sugar plantation.

“There is no way to ignore or avoid the fact that this money came from the labor of others,” Manegold said. “It engages the notion of how much America has forgotten about slavery here in the North.”

While the Royall chair is traditionally held by the Dean of the Law School, the current dean, Elena Kagan, declined the chair because of its history.

Kagan, who clerked for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, now holds the Charles Hamilton Houston professorship, named for the legendary civil rights attorney—and mentor to Marshall—who is known as “the man who killed Jim Crow,” according to Manegold.

Apart from Royall, several other slave owners and traders served as professors, donated to the University, or sat on its two governing boards.


John Winthrop, the Puritan leader and first governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, was involved in the slave trade and donated books valued at £20 to Harvard in 1658, marking the first time Harvard received money marked by ties to slavery.

Winthrop House is named after both Governor Winthrop and his descendent, mathematics and philosophy professor John Winthrop, Class of 1732, who was acting university president from 1773 to 1774.

Another prominent Harvardian implicated in slavery was John Hancock, Class of 1754, who served as Treasurer of the University from 1773 to 1777. McDonald C. Bartels ’09, who was in Beckert’s seminar, found that one of Hancock’s business partners, James Rowe, traded slaves. Hancock donated £554 to Harvard College in 1764.

The Cabots were another Harvard family with ties to the slave trade.

Active in the textile industry, the Brahmin Cabots reaped profits from the slave trade, according to Bartels’ research. Samuel Cabot, Sr. and John Cabot, Class of 1763, were both involved in industries deeply entangled with slavery, including rum distillation and sugar and molasses exportation. (The undergraduate House is named in honor of their descendants, University benefactors Thomas D. Cabot, Class of 1919, and his wife Virginia.)

And Thomas W. Ward, who served as Harvard’s Treasurer from 1830 to 1842, supervised American operations for the British merchant bank Baring Brothers and Company, whose cotton and sugar operations profited from slave labor.

“It shows the general entanglement of the North and South regarding cotton and textile manufacturing,” said Meike K. Schallert ’08, another student in the class.


But more than reaping the economic benefits of slavery, Harvard also endorsed pro-slavery thought.

The noted 19th century jurist Timothy Walker, Class of 1826, devoted his 1851 Phi Beta Kappa speech to mocking abolitionists. And after Daniel Webster, a the legendary Massachusetts senator, gave a speech endorsing the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, Harvard President Jared Sparks, Class of 1815, and several professors signed a letter to the editor of the Boston Courier to show their support, according to the book “Veritas,” a history of Harvard by Andrew B. Schlesinger ’70.

George Ticknor, the chair of Romance languages and literatures in the early 1800s, prominently supported slavery and opposed abolition in the South, according to the research of Lewis E. Bollard ’09, who is also a Crimson editorial writer.

“That’s what universities specialize in—the propagation of ideas,” said Alfred A. Brophy, a law professor at the University of Alabama who specializes in civil rights litigation and reparations. “As Emerson said, ‘The role of the scholar is to retest old assumptions.’ What Harvard was doing in the years leading into the Civil War was less retesting old assumptions and more telling people that the institution of slavery was right.”

In fact, some slavery opponents may have suffered professional consequences for their political views. Germanic Literature Professor Charles Follen, an outspoken abolitionist, was fired by President Josiah Quincy III in 1835, an event that many blamed on his stance in favor of abolition.

And members of the faculty weren’t the only ones unwilling to come out against slavery. The admission of the first black student at Harvard, Beverly Garnett Williams, in 1847, triggered protests among students, particularly among Southerners.

But while Harvard was responsible for pro-slavery sentiments, a number of Harvard graduates were outspoken abolitionists, among them Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Theodore Parker,

Perhaps most prominent of all was Senator Charles Sumner, Class of 1830, the leader of the vehemently anti-slavery Radical Republicans whose statue now stands in the midst of Harvard Square, just outside Mass Hall.

“It is to Harvard’s credit that it both nurtured their anti-slavery, abolitionist sentiment and benefitted from the anti-slavery ferment in New England,” Brophy said.

University President Drew G. Faust, a Civil War historian, added that while recent research has revealed the extent to which northern institutions were complicit in slavery and there are many examples of Harvard ties to slavery, she was also struck by the number of students in Harvard’s history who were “advocates of abolition and emancipation.”

She said that in researching her most recent book, “The Republic of Suffering,” she saw a lot of “soldiers from the Harvard student body who fought and died in the civil war often because of their deep abolitionist sentiments.”

—Staff writer Brittany M. Llewellyn contributed to the reporting of this story. —Staff writer Alexandra Perloff-Giles can be reaced at