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Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda Demands Reparations for Harvard’s Association with Slavery in Letter to Bacow

Mass. Hall
Senior members of Harvard's central administration, including University Provost Alan M. Garber '76, work in Massachusetts Hall.

Antigua and Barbuda’s Prime Minister Gaston Browne demanded reparations from Harvard for the University’s historical ties to slavery in a letter to University President Lawrence S. Bacow last month.

The letter, dated Oct. 30, recalls how Isaac Royall Jr., a plantation owner and slave trader who operated in Antigua, donated money to Harvard in 1815 to create the first endowed law professorship. The emblem became the seal of Harvard Law School in 1937.

Browne’s letter calls for Harvard to send reparations as recognition and compensation of Antiguan slaves in establishing the Law School.

“Reparation from Harvard would compensate for its development on the backs of our people,” Browne wrote. “Reparation is not aid; it is not a gift; it is compensation to correct the injustices of the past and restore equity. Harvard should be in the forefront of this effort.”

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Bacow responded to Browne’s request for reparations in a letter Tuesday, noting actions taken during Faust’s presidency to acknowledge Harvard’s connections to slavery, including the installation of a memorial commemorating the enslaved individuals that contributed to Harvard Law School’s founding.

Bacow said he considers the memorial’s establishment — along with the removal of the Law School’s seal containing the Royall family crest in 2016 — to be in “significant steps” toward acknowledging Harvard’s history, but noted the need for additional work.

“We recognize that there is more work to be done,” Bacow wrote. “Indeed, Harvard is determined to take additional steps to explore this institution's historical relationship with slavery and the challenging moral questions that arise when confronting past injustices and their legacies. Harvard is also committed to working with other educational institutions to study slavery and its legacy.”

Browne’s letter comes as Harvard has increasingly been forced to reckon with its ties to slavery in recent years. In March, Tamara K. Lanier filed a lawsuit claiming that the University possessed and profited from daguerreotypes of her ancestors that are believed to be the oldest existing photographs of American slaves.

The letter also notes that Sir Ronald M. Sanders, Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States, has previously written two letters to Harvard — one addressed to Bacow in November 2018 and the other to former University President Drew G. Faust in October 2016. Those letters also outlined demands for reparations to be contributed to education in Antigua and Barbuda.

“Ambassador Sanders pointed out that, consequently, the reputation that Harvard enjoys internationally is intertwined with the dark legacy of Royall's Antigua slaves who died in oppression, uncompensated for their lives in slavery and their death in cruelty,” Browne wrote in his letter. “In this context, he sought a genuine effort by Harvard to make amends to the people of Antigua for the gains Harvard enjoyed at the expense of their kinfolk.

“Specifically, in his letter to you of 26 November 2018, Ambassador Sanders proposed assistance from Harvard to Antigua and Barbuda in the field of education as a form of making amends to the country,” Browne added.

Browne reiterated Sanders’ argument that education is crucial for the future development of Antigua and Barbuda and asked that reparations be directed to the University of West Indies at Five Islands. He proposed a meeting between University officials and Antigua and Barbuda government representatives to reach an agreement.

University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain provided The Crimson with a copy of a reply to Sanders’ 2016 letter from Faust’s former Chief of Staff Lars P.K. Madsen.

In the reply, Madsen wrote that Harvard Law School had already taken steps to address its relationship to slavery, including retiring its seal. He also noted that the University continued to commission research into its ties to slavery.

Harvard Law School spokesperson Jeff Neal referred The Crimson to the University’s comment.

Several higher education institutions including the University of Glasgow in the United Kingdom and the Princeton Theological Seminary have already committed reparations to Antigua and Barbuda to compensate for their historical ties to slavery in the Carribean, according to Browne’s letter. Bacow’s response did not indicate whether Harvard planned to follow suit.

— Staff writer Brie K. Buchanan can be reached at brie.buchanan@thecrimson.com.

— Staff writer Ellen M. Burstein can be reached at ellen.burstein@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @ellenburstein.

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