Harvard is Built on Slavery

Last fall, I took a history seminar entitled Harvard and Slavery. My classmates and I became intimately familiar with the moments in which Harvard could have acknowledged its ties to slavery, but instead remained silent. I was reminded of these moments in light of University President Lawrence S. Bacow’s comments last week, which are part of Harvard’s legacy of racism.

For much of its history, Harvard and its peer institutions have perpetuated the idea of black people being lesser, allowing platforms for such ideas to grow. In his book, “Ebony and Ivy,” Craig Steven Wilder describes how Harvard anatomist John Collins Warren, Class of 1797, actively taught his students that black people were inferior and used his academic position to encourage the study of scientific racism. Despite this, history remembers Warren as a founder of Massachusetts General Hospital and the first dean of Harvard Medical School.

In his biographical portraits, Harvard librarian John Langdon Sibley explained “the frequency of slaveholding officers and alumni” by “reminding readers that owning black people was a habit of ‘most prosperous men.’” University President Increase Mather owned an enslaved individual, and often made him run errands for the college. University President Benjamin Wadsworth “owned an enslaved black man named Titus.”

The Harvard community has grappled with our connections to slavery in the past. More recently, this has taken the form of the lawsuit filed by Tamara K. Lanier. The lawsuit concerns daguerreotypes commissioned by Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz that were used to scientifically support polygenism — a theory that races have distinct origins, used as a scientific basis for ideas of white superiority. Lanier also requested in her suit that the University acknowledge its role in “perpetuating and justifying the institution of slavery.”

Recent responses to Lanier’s lawsuit have asked, “Should we rename this or that building?”— doing just enough to preserve Harvard’s innocence. Delineating between whether the Museum of Comparative Zoology is known as the “Agassiz Museum” in honor of Louis Agassiz or his son Alexander Agassiz, Class of 1855, is a futile exercise which neglects generational privilege and legacy. Insisting that a building is acceptable because it is named after Louis’s wife Elizabeth Cabot Agassiz is equally problematic. Elizabeth Cabot Agassiz’s story is incomplete without considering how her grandfather, Thomas Handasyd Perkins, was a middleman for slave traders and was involved in at least three slave trading voyages (Belle Arsène, Katy, and Willing Quaker). Perkins became incredibly wealthy from this work. His wealth and legacy allowed Elizabeth to found Radcliffe College.


Individuals can’t be faulted for ancestry that they didn’t choose, but Elizabeth Cabot Agassiz herself popularized her husband Louis’s staunch belief in polygenism — most notably through their joint publication of “A Journey in Brazil,” which argued that being mixed-race was equivalent to being subhuman. This type of ideology elevated whiteness above all else. It helped to sustain the slave trade and justified the perpetuation of racism even after slavery was technically outlawed.

This is all to say: Many individuals affiliated with Harvard have connections to slavery and were complicit in its perpetuation. The initial conversation that needs to happen is not about names, but instead one that allows us to look inwards, as a community, at Harvard’s history.

How can we make decisions about the future without first understanding the past? Even when enslaved individuals are no longer present on campus, their presence still lingers in more permanent ways. The work they did when they were alive is permanent. The years of their lives that were spent serving Harvard presidents like Wadsworth and Mather will never be returned to them. Titus, Venus, Bilhah, and Juba will forever be known by the names given to them by an enslaver — they are remembered only by a plaque that remains unnoticed and neglected by Harvard students: a small plaque on the side of Wadsworth House. Do Harvard students even know which building that is?

Harvard has yet to apologize for or even address its perpetuation of slavery and scientific racism, and the fact that through these actions it has perpetuated the idea that black people should be seen as objects. Harvard, the name which grants credibility to all things upon which it is embossed, endorsed the erasure and destruction of black lives. The plaque is a mere reminder of the lack of consideration Harvard devotes to such issues.

To make amends for the past, Harvard needs to consider how it can use the future to do good. The University can start by committing more resources to the research currently being undertaken by the Harvard and Slavery project, as well as by making a substantial and public apology that does not attempt to make excuses for its past. More importantly, we need to talk about what this legacy means and the privilege of our positions as members of the Harvard community. Only then can we start to take meaningful action.

Julie Ngauv ‘20 is a History concentrator in Dunster House.