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Cross burning in Harvard Yard?

Hard to believe that it happened, but it did. Around midnight on Feb. 5, 1952, a cross was burned in front of Stoughton Hall, where the 11 black members of the Harvard Class of 1955 lived. The incident was perpetrated by two freshmen, whose names the Harvard administration kept secret, and whose punishment was very light: probation, nothing further if no more bad behavior occurred within a relatively short time. No permanent blot on the students’ record. The perpetrators defended their action as a “prank,” oblivious and outrageously insensitive to the history, symbolism, and continuing dangers such violence—usually carried out by members of the Ku Klux Klan—bears.

One of the 11 black students was the late J. Max Bond ’55, who became one the nation’s leading black architects, stressing socially progressive themes and public service. In recognition of his contributions, the City University of New York created the J. Max Bond Center on Design for the Just City in 2011.

Bond passed away on Feb. 18, 2009. I joined more than 800 of Max’s family, friends, co-workers, and admirers for a commemoration of his life three months later at the Cooper Union Great Hall.

Max’s widow, Jean Carey Bond, a writer, teacher, and activist, had prepared an 11-page recollection of his life. In it, she noted that Max entered Harvard at age 15, finished in three years, graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. Yet shortly after his fifteenth birthday, he was welcomed by the burning cross. Even more outrageously, wrote Ms. Bond in the handout, he was subsequently threatened by the Harvard administration (presumably to protect the University’s image) that any black student who reported the incident to the Boston media would be suspended.

But Max and Lou Sharpe, co-chair of the Harvard Society for Minority Rights, defied the threat, and a story or short account of the cross-burning appeared in The Crimson, the Boston Globe, the Boston Herald, the New York Times, and elsewhere, in the U.S. and abroad.  As someone (white) whose work and personal life are replete with anti-racism activities, I decided I’d try to get Harvard at least to apologize for their alleged threat (and the censorship that threat would have constituted). While this is a very different era in U.S. race relations and one hopes that such an event would not happen today, past incidents of racist behavior certainly deserve an apology, if only for its educational or symbolic value.

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I first wrote a letter to the editor of Harvard Magazine. Next I went to the top: On Sept. 2, 2009, I wrote University President Drew Gilpin Faust, recently appointed as Harvard’s first female president, referring to my just-published letter, summarizing the history, and urging an institutional apology. Indeed, Brown University had just recently apologized for its own racial history. In return, Faust wrote me, essentially asking for documentation of the threat and clearly reluctant to accede to my request.

While I made some real effort to locate such documentation, attempting to contact the relevant deans at the time, such historical documents are essentially closed to researchers; contacting those of Max’s fellow black students whom I could find (some of whom—more than five decades later—had only dim memories of the incident), but who were unable to pass on to me any firm proof of who made the threat, to whom, and in what form.

President Faust’s response struck me as truly off-putting and defensive—no offer to search the archives (by me or someone else) for relevant documentation, no willingness to contact Jean Carey Bond or their children to find out what Max had told them of that incident, no trust that Jean was accurately reporting something Max had conveyed to her. President Faust’s words: “Unfortunately, in a university as old as ours there will be many regrettable incidents involving administrators whose values are different from ours, and not all of them are easily verifiable after much time has passed… [The] episodes described in your letter to the magazine are particularly egregious and make painful reading. I do appreciate your bringing them to my attention.”

Her response was particularly off-putting because the issue was not just a simple matter of different values and the behavior of some administrators. The institution provided a setting for that incident, reflecting racism and denial of rights that should have been strongly condemned at the time as well as now. The apology due should go beyond what happened in February of 1952 and encompass a genuine understanding of Harvard’s history with respect to race.

And so that’s where things stand, save for my writing up and disseminating this more than half-century-old history. I do this partly because I believe it is of general interest to lots of folks, and partly to hopefully generate public pressure on President Faust to do the right thing—to accept the fact that this happened, or even, if that’s her preference, to simply apologize for its mere possibility.

Quite likely, such a public apology by her would be widely reported.

The matter is in her hands.

Chester Hartman ’57 is a former Harvard faculty member and Director of Research for the Poverty & Race Research Action Council in Washington, D.C.

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