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Professors and students discussed the deep connection between America’s history of human bondage and its economic ascendancy during a three-day conference at Harvard and Brown University entitled “Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development.”
The conference—co-organized by Sven Beckert, a history professor at Harvard, and Seth E. Rockman, an associate history professor at Brown—featured panel discussions, a keynote speech by Brown University President Ruth J. Simmons, and sessions showcasing undergraduates’ research on slavery.
The conference, according to Rockman, aimed to “make the audience recognize all the ways in which slavery is central, and not marginal, to the history of the American economy.”
An audience of academic scholars filled the Thompson Room of the Barker Center Saturday for the last day of the conference.
Beckert, in his opening remarks Saturday morning, said that “one finds that this [separation between capitalism and slavery in American History] is, in fact, fiction.”
Undergraduate students in Beckert’s course History 84g: “Harvard and Slavery” gave presentations during a poster session Saturday afternoon, showcasing their research on slavery, its relationship with capitalism, and its connection to academic institutions like Harvard.
Alexa A. Rahman ’12, a history concentrator in Beckert’s course, noted that “Harvard is not without ties to slavery.”
Rahman is conducting research on Edwin F. Atkins, a prominent entrepreneur at the end of the 19th century.
Atkins made donations to Harvard with wealth derived from his Cuban sugarcane plantation, which had used slave labor up until the abolition of slavery in Cuba in 1886.
After emancipation, Atkins established a Harvard-run botanical research institute on his plantation, which still relied heavily on labor from low-wage former slaves.
There is proof that “experimentation at the Atkins Institute [in Cuba] continued until Castro’s revolution,” Rahman continued.
“It was fascinating to find that other academic institutions had similar stories with plantations at the time,” Rahman added.
Learah T. Lockhart ’12, another student in the “Harvard and Slavery” course, presented her preliminary findings at the conference.
Lockhart investigated Harvard President Josiah Quincy’s decision to prohibit a debate on abolition at the Harvard Divinity School, which was called the Theological School at the time.
“The Philanthropic Society, a benevolent and debating society, wanted to hold a debate on abolition but was prevented from doing so by the administration,” Lockhart said. “The administration claimed no events were to be held by students with strangers from outside the College.”
The conference began at Brown, where students also showcased their research on the relationship between slavery and capitalism.
Unlike Harvard, Brown University published a report about the institution’s links to slavery in the fall of 2006, titled “Slavery and Justice.”
“Brown took real leadership in investigating its connection to slavery,” Beckert said.
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