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On November 21st, President Bacow announced the creation of a new initiative to examine Harvard’s legacy of slavery. In light of this announcement, I suggest that the first area of research for this new committee be Bacow’s very own residence. Elmwood has a long and fraught history of slavery. If we truly want to understand it, we’ll have to supplement archival study with on-the-ground archeological research.
Built in 1767 by Thomas Oliver, Class of 1753, the Elmwood mansion hasn’t always been the President’s residence, nor has it always been called Elmwood. Thomas Oliver was born into a wealthy English merchant family which primarily made its fortune through Caribbean slave labor. The Olivers owned at least 206 enslaved people, who labored at the family’s Friar’s Hill plantation on Antigua.
Not only were the Olivers actively engaged in the buying and selling of human beings in the Caribbean, at least 11 enslaved people actually labored at Elmwood. According to the English loyalist claim Oliver filed to be reimbursed for lost “property” following the American Revolution; their names were: Buff, Gale, Jerry, Jeoffry, Samuel, Mira, Jude, Sarah, Jenny, Violet, and Young Jerry.
Based on evidence from studying similar households, we can infer a few things about the lives of these 11 people — that they worked at Elmwood while the Olivers lived there, they were subject to being leased to other white families, and they were often under surveillance by the Oliver family. Evidence reveals that a Cambridge woman named Mercy Cooke may have been responsible for caring Young Jerry after the Olivers left Cambridge in 1774, but the fate of the other 10 remains uncertain.
The house was later occupied by abolitionist poet James Russell Lowell, Class of 1838, (who was related by marriage to the Olivers and responsible for the home’s name) before being purchased by Harvard professor Arthur Kingsley Porter and later bequeathed to the University. In the 1960s, Harvard renovated the home and it became the permanent residence of the University President beginning in 1971.
From 2000-2001, Alexandra Chan led an archeological excavation of the Royall House (yes, the same Royalls whose seal was removed from the Law School). Similar to the Olivers, the Royalls were an English merchant family who created their wealth through Caribbean plantations and the slave trade. Whereas at least 11 enslaved people labored at Elmwood, at least 60 enslaved people lived at the Royall house. At the dig, Chan and her team retrieved over 65,000 artifacts, including 303 ceramic vessels and 203 glass ones. Publishing her findings in her book, “Slavery in the Age of Reason,” Chan demystified some questions regarding the site, discussing topics like slave-master relationships, labor conditions, leisure preferences, and other general experiences of Royall house life. She notes that the “slave quarters had not only the most prolific number of artifacts and features at the site, but many of the deposits there could be linked to the Royall period of occupation.” Given the strong similarities between the Olivers and the Royalls, a project at Elmwood could yield similar results. Additionally, like the Harvard Yard Archeology Project, an excavation at Elmwood could present field-work opportunities to students.
The architecture of the house today speaks to its origins, as much of its exterior design is reminiscent of its original display of wealth. Given that visual features were effective in legitimizing social status, families like the Olivers designed homes like Elmwood to project their perceived elitism and grandeur. Sited on a knoll which once overlooked the Charles River, the house features a sizeable, central dual-level entryway with imposing neoclassical columns and double chimneys in order to project the power and inaccessibility of the English gentry class. For the Olivers and similar families, the wealth and power requisite to be part of such a class came directly from the Caribbean slave trade. Therefore, despite having gone through several renovations throughout its history, Elmwood stands as a sharp visual reminder of Harvard’s historic ties to slavery. Perhaps what’s beneath it can add even more to what we know.
When we talk about the “legacy of slavery,” we can’t forget that we are discussing real people. Despite Elmwood’s fascinating journey through time, very little is known about the enslaved people who originally labored there. If President Bacow really wants to examine this University’s complex ties to slavery, might I suggest that he offer his own home for research. Paper-based history can only go so far. Sometimes we must rely on archeology and on-site research to craft the narratives of those who have long been silent in the archives.
Andrew H. Mammel ’21 is a History concentrator in Dunster House.
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