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UPDATED: October 19, 2016, at 3:09 p.m.
The Ambassador of Antigua and Barbuda to the United States is calling upon the University to provide reparations to Antiguans, some of whom are descendants of slaves owned by a family whose 18th century donation Harvard used to establish its first law professorship.
Last week, Sir Ronald Sanders sent a letter to University President Drew G. Faust urging the Harvard Corporation to follow Georgetown’s example and “demonstrate its remorse and its debt to those unnamed slaves from Antigua and Barbuda.” Georgetown University recently pledged to take measures to atone for its own slave-owning past, including offering admissions preference to the descendants of slaves it sold in the 1830’s.
In his letter, Sanders specifically proposed that the Law School offer annual scholarships to Antiguan students as one form of reparations.
Two centuries ago, Isaac Royall, Jr. provided land in his will for Harvard to endow a professorship of law, physics, or anatomy. In 1815, Harvard chose to create a professorship of law, which would eventually serve as the foundation for Harvard’s fledgling law school. Harvard Law School was not officially established until 1817.
Royall, Jr.’s wealth derived from the Massachusetts farms and a sugar plantation in Antigua he had inherited from his father—properties that relied on and profited from slave labor. The Royalls were a prominent slave-owning family in the small Caribbean country in the early 18th century.
The Royall Professorship of Law still exists at Harvard Law, and until last spring, the school’s official seal displayed the Royall crest. Student activists last fall demanded the Law School discard the crest, and in March, a Law School committee tasked with re-examining the seal’s history released a recommendation that the school change the seal. The Harvard Corporation officially approved that recommendation soon after, and the Law School remains without an official seal.
The debate over the seal constituted part of a broader University-wide conversation about Harvard’s legacy of slavery. Last spring, Faust dedicated a plaque to four slaves who worked on Harvard’s campus in the 18th century. And next spring, Harvard will host a conference on the history of slavery at U.S. colleges and universities.
But Sanders believes Harvard owes an outstanding debt to Antiguans, and—now that Georgetown has provided a model—now is the time collect on it.
“If Georgetown could do that, we thought that Harvard University ought to emulate them and do the same thing,” Sanders said in an interview.
The University has not yet responded to Sanders’s letter, though according to spokesperson David J. Cameron the University is working on a response. Law School spokespeople declined to comment.
But Faust has directly engaged with questions raised by Georgetown’s reparations plan. Earlier this month, Faust discussed the school’s legacy of slavery with Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia and writer for The Atlantic Ta-Nehisi Coates, a well-known proponent of reparations. And in an interview with The Crimson last month, before receiving Sanders’s letter, Faust drew distinctions between Georgetown’s past and Harvard’s.
“I am not aware of any slaves that were owned by Harvard itself, and slavery was much less of a presence and an economic force in New England than it was in Washington, D.C., and the South,” she said. “Mostly slave records were kept as economic records, business records, and the records we have of slaves at Harvard are much scarcer and less complete.”
For Sanders, the fact that Harvard profited in some way from the “blood money” of the Royall’s Antiguan slaves—regardless of whether Harvard directly owned the slaves—is a compelling enough reason for Harvard to extend benefits to Antiguans.
Because of the difficulty of tracing the descendants of the Royall slaves, Sanders proposed that the Law School extend scholarships each year to Antiguans in general, rather than just to direct descendants. Elaborating on this proposal in an interview, Sanders also suggested that Harvard help fund a new university currently being built in Antigua—the first institution of higher education in the country. Currently, the Antiguan government must provide scholarships for students to pursue higher education abroad.
While Sanders formulated the proposals, he said he did so with the backing of the government of Antigua and Barbuda.
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