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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained
With initiatives like a new financial aid program, Harvard often start trends that ripple through higher education. But when it comes to investigating its institutional history, the University might do well to take a cue from its peers.
Like many venerable American universities, Harvard’s past is tied to slavery: for decades, if not centuries, the University inculcated pro-slavery sentiment and benefitted from funds that were the fruits of the slave trade or slave labor. But unlike many of its peers—such as Brown and Yale—Harvard has never conducted a formal examination of its past.
And though the University has no plans to launch such an investigation, many feel the time is right for Harvard to do so, given that University President Drew G. Faust—a leading Civil War historian and a self-professed “civil-rights advocate and activist”—is at the helm.
“Harvard is perhaps uniquely positioned to engage in an exploration of our country’s history with slavery and its connection to the present,” says Alfred L. Brophy, an expert on civil rights litigation at the University of Alabama School of Law. “Now is a good time for Harvard to do more in terms of an investigation, and Drew Faust,
who is our nation’s leading historian of the Old South, is an ideal person to lead this process.”
But Faust said that despite her academic interests, she will not be calling for an institutional investigation of any kind, even while acknowledging that the question of Harvard’s entanglements with slavery is “intriguing” for students and professors to explore. “I’m not going to be doing this as a presidential project,” she said.
HARVARD: A PROBABLE TARGET?
While Harvard, by virtue of being in northern New England, was less entangled in slavery than its peers in the South, the University nevertheless was implicated to a degree in the slave trade.
Along with Brown, Harvard was mentioned in a series of class-action lawsuits beginning in 2002, in which descendants of slaves sought compensation for damages from private corporations that profited from slavery. The universities, while not sued directly, were cited as examples of schools whose fortunes rested historically on the institution of slavery.
Shortly after the lawsuits were filed, Harvard Law School professor Charles J. Ogletree, Jr. published an op-ed in The New York Times arguing that Harvard, Brown, and Yale were all “probable targets” of a lawsuit to be filed by his Reparations Coordinating Committee later that year.
While all of the class-action suits were dismissed—and Ogletree’s threatened lawsuit never materialized—the accusations prompted officials at Yale and Brown to examine the extent to which their institutions benefited from slavery.
In 2001, Yale graduate students published a lengthy report that examined the extent to which the school benefitted financially from slavery and perpetuated pro-slavery ideology. A number of Yale’s residential colleges, for example, were named after slave owners, most notably Calhoun College, which is named for John C. Calhoun, the South Carolina senator and ardent defender of Southern rights.
And that year, Brown President Ruth J. Simmons—the first black president of an Ivy League university—commissioned a panel of students, faculty, and administrators to investigate Brown’s ties to slavery. In 2006, the University issued a Report on Slavery and Justice.
According to James T. Campbell, a history professor who chaired the group examining Brown’s past, two important events converged that may have prompted Simmons’s charge.
The first was a controversy on campus in the spring of 2001—after Simmons had been appointed as president but before she had taken office—that centered on an inflammatory advertisement printed in The Brown Daily Herald entitled, “10 Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery is a Bad Idea,” launching what some called bigoted attacks on blacks. The Crimson declined to print the same ad, which was submitted to dozens of college newspapers.
Students at Brown protested by withdrawing the Herald issue containing the ad from all of the distribution points, and the story became national news. Campbell said that Simmons approached the event as an opportunity to teach students “to engage in reasoned, academically rigorous ways with complicated difficult ideas.”
The second event that prompted the report was the filing of the class-action lawsuits, which made Brown’s history a matter of national interest, Campbell said.
He credited Simmons for taking the position that “any university worth its salt would, in fact, seek to find out what the truth of this is”—unlike Harvard, which, Campbell said, “decided to lay low and hoped it would blow over.”
“Universities are not sausage factories,” Campbell said. “We profess to be particular kinds of institutions. We profess to be truth-seeking. We profess to be conservators of humanity’s past.”
‘THE TIPPING POINT’
The Brown report found that a number of its benefactors were deeply entangled with slavery: about 30 members of the Brown Corporation owned or captained slave ships in the first half century of the institution’s history, according to Campbell. The report did also find instances in which members of the institution played important roles in the abolitionist movement.
While Campbell said his main focus in compiling the report was to fulfill the charge given him by Simmons, he nevertheless hoped the report would establish an important precedent for other universities.
“In my heart I always hoped and expected that the work we were doing here, if we did it responsibly, thoroughly and well, might encourage other institutions to take a look at their own history,” Campbell said. Brown showed “other institutions that it’s possible to look at this history, and face it, without having the roof collapse on your head.”
Since 2006, Brown has pursued many of the initiatives suggested in the report, such as erecting the first major slave trade memorial in the U.S. and creating a center for the continuing study of slavery and justice. Simmons also exceeded the committee’s recommendations about how Brown could help public school students obtain a quality education by establishing a trust fund—grown in perpetuity as part of the university’s endowment—to provide educational programs for Providence schoolchildren.
Alongside Yale and Brown, several other schools—like the University of Alabama, the University of North Carolina, the University of Virginia, and the College of William and Mary—have acknowledged that they all benefited from slavery and took steps to apologize for their pasts.
“I think we’re right at the tipping point,” said Brophy, the Alabama expert on civil rights litigation. “Brown has given us a model of how institutions can have the courage and wisdom to undertake these self-investigations of their pasts.”
THE LEGACY OF SLAVERY
Whether Harvard has an obligation to formally apologize for its past ties to slavery is a matter of debate.
Andrew B. Schlesinger ’70, the author of “Veritas: Harvard College and the American Experience,” said that an investigation into Harvard’s past could not hurt, but that reparations are not warranted.
“Harvard is less complicit” than other colleges, Schlesinger said, noting that much of the slave trade was based in and around Newport, Rhode Island. “I just don’t think it was as evident up here as it was at Yale or in Rhode Island. People connected to Harvard might have been making money from their estates in the Caribbean where they owned slaves, but they were not professional slave traders themselves.”
Brophy, who earned his Ph.D. from Harvard’s History of American Civilization Program in 2001, said he agreed that the University was less guilty than other colleges, but still he did not rule out the possibility of making monetary amends.
“If Harvard feels the desire and moral need to do something for people in the West Indies,” he says, “I would be all in favor of it.”
Still, the voices calling for at least a probe into the University’s history remain.
“I think that in the first place there should be fact-finding, there should be an audit, there should be an investigation to find out what taint, if any, Harvard has from slavery and the slave trade,” said Gerald C. Horne, a professor of African-American studies at the University of Houston.
Horne said that Harvard’s stature gives the University a unique influence on the national scene, and that Faust’s tenure would provide an excellent opportunity to conduct an investigation of some sort into its past.
“Your president is in a unique position to provide leadership on this question, given her academic interests in particular,” he said. “After all, the title of her new book is ‘[This] Republic of Suffering.’ Well, you can’t talk about suffering without talking about slavery and the slave trade.”
—Staff writers Claire M. Guehenno and Laurence H. M. Holland contributed to the reporting of this story.
—Staff writer Brittany M. Llewellyn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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