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It’s easy to be lured by false remembrances when thinking of Harvard’s history — to be drawn in by Harvard’s ostensibly illustrious founding, when the early institution charted its course through the churning Western world guided by nothing but the pursuit of truth and knowledge. The preeminence of this enchanting lore — an image that the University often propounds itself — may even help explain Harvard’s enduring esteem and renowned position today. Yet this portrait is, on many levels, a false one.
In our world, for any institution with a past that spans as long as Harvard’s, dark chapters are likely. For Harvard, chief among these is the University’s depraved involvement in the institution of slavery — something that it has only recently begun to deeply grapple with.
Thankfully, the University’s long-overdue explorations are finally beginning to gain some real momentum. After a review of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology found the remains of at least 15 individuals of African descent who were likely alive during the time of American slavery, the University formed a steering committee designed to thoroughly survey the human remains across all Harvard museums.
This is an important step. Understanding the historical context and lives of these individuals is essential, and we are pleased by the committee’s commitment to actively exploring the presentation and handling of these sensitive remains. Firmly solidifying our faith, too, is the fact that the committee’s plans don’t stop with a singular, albeit important, examination of these remains. The committee has instead embedded broader, actionable plans within their mission, promising to develop comprehensive policies on the “collection, display, and ethical stewardship” of human remains. Undertakings like these actively widen the committee's task to determining what the right thing to do, if any, with these remains is.
We carry sincere confidence that the members of the committee have — and will continue to – pour into the project the level of thought and effort it deserves, probing both the immediate question of what to do with the remains, as well as the broader question of how our University should responsibly interrogate its connections to slavery.
We throw our support behind the committee and urge the University to do the same, plus actively build upon these efforts. One potential avenue for such advancement, as we have advocated for in the past, is to cultivate permanent physical space dedicated to meaningful reflection upon Harvard’s legacy of slavery. A space for such reflection would not only serve as a powerful reminder of our past, but could stir the minds of the Harvard affiliates and any visitors it finds, reminding them of the harm Harvard has caused in the past and work left to be done in the future.
Finally, the University needs to look beyond initiatives focused on spaces and reflection as it moves forward. Without question, there lies inherent value in the committee’s attention to the more abstract aspects of justice; still, the University’s reckoning with its ties to slavery cannot end with symbolism. It is the University’s responsibility to students, faculty, staff, and alumni — of the troubled past, of the contemplative present, and of the unmapped future — to examine the concrete steps it can take to help atone for our cruel history.
As University President Lawrence S. Bacow wrote himself in his email announcing the formation of the steering committee, we must make sure that we never place “academic enterprise above respect for the dead and human decency.” This is true not only within the context of Harvard’s troubling human remains collection but also in any research or initiative undertaken at Harvard and beyond. When we dig into the past, we should in part be working to right the wrongs of that past. But we also need to vigilantly move forward — to gain insight and understanding, to do better, and to cultivate new atmospheres that we can look at with comfort and pride. The Peabody’s latest initiative is an exceptional step towards this end.
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.
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