When J. Max Bond Jr. ’55 entered Harvard at the age of 16, he was among 15 Black students in his class, most of whom lived in the north corner of Harvard Yard.
As his freshman spring semester began, two other Harvard freshmen erected a wooden cross facing that corner of the Yard, formed by Stoughton and Holworthy Halls.
And around midnight on Feb. 5, 1952, the students lit the cross on fire.
“Some of the onlookers cheered when, after ten minutes, the cross was knocked down,” Bond and his Black classmate wrote in a letter to The Crimson at the time. “But we are sorry to say that others expressed indignation at its destruction. Minutes later a Negro student passing thru the Yard was hailed with remarks such as might be expected in the Klan-dominated States of the South.”
Save a few miscellaneous Crimson articles, Bond’s memory of the incident is the strongest account of the Harvard Yard cross burning, which nearly every biography of Bond’s — he became a well-known architect — invariably notes as formative in his college years.
“I saw the flames,” Bond told The Crimson a few weeks after the incident. “I didn’t think of the Klan right off the bat. When I did realize what it was, I was shocked and I didn’t know what to do.”
Several Harvard deans publicly condemned the cross burning. Three progressive student organizations circulated a petition, garnering several hundred signatures, to have the perpetrators punished.
Post-Harvard, Bond became one of a few prominent Black architects in the 20th century. After his death in 2009, his widow, Jean Carey Bond, released an 11-page retelling of his life.
In it, Jean reveals that the University threatened Bond or any Black student with suspension should they go to the media with the cross burning. Bond, who graduated Phi Beta Kappa and finished undergrad in three years, was never suspended.
Meanwhile, the two freshman perpetrators were handed temporary probation by the Administrative Board.
The pair, hailed as pranksters by administrators and students alike, made a half-hearted apology, saying it was a practical joke. Freshman Union Committee secretary Geoffrey H. “Geoff” Ball ’55 told The Crimson at the time the Union would have taken action if there was “any maliciousness” uncovered. Ball did not respond to a request for comment.
“We do not feel that this demonstration can be dismissed as a prank,” Bond wrote to The Crimson two days after Ball’s comments. “A burning cross carries with it so many unpleasant associations that it cannot be simply laughed off.”
Despite Bond’s appeal to take this history seriously, it is unclear the extent to which the University has, or will, reckon with its troubling ties to the Ku Klux Klan throughout the 20th century, which do not begin or end with the 1952 cross burning.
Last year, University President Lawrence S. Bacow convened the Initiative on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery, a group tasked with reviewing Harvard’s history with slavery and its residues which seep into Harvard today.
With its initial report coming this upcoming winter, the initiative is the University’s most visible step yet in understanding its enduring connections with slavery. Although it studies the “legacy of slavery,” public statements from and about the initiative rarely mention the 20th century, let alone the KKK — among the most brazen signs of the racism that outlives the formal end of American slavery.
In his letter announcing the Legacy of Slavery initiative, Bacow invoked “the work of the distinguished historian and Harvard alumnus John Hope Franklin, who said, ‘Good history is a good foundation for a better present and future.’”
This article is my attempt to do “good history.” It represents a year’s worth of archival research, as complete a narrative of the Klan’s presence at the University as I could construct. Along the way, I’ve discovered this 20th-century historical hole in Harvard’s reconciliation attempts. Assembling these archives is an opportunity to make them known and put them in productive tension with both present-day racism and other efforts to reckon with Harvard’s past.
Chester W. Hartman ’57, who in 2014 investigated the cross burning, wrote in a Crimson op-ed he could not gather clear details from surviving alumni regarding the incident, but noted that it had gone unacknowledged by Harvard for over half a century. Bond, in his initial Crimson letter, even wrote it was “regrettable” no other students had come forward to write in condemning the incident except him and his classmate.
Hartman emailed then-University President Drew G. Faust, detailing to her the cross burning.
Faust wrote back that the incidents were “particularly egregious and make painful reading,” but noted that “unfortunately, in a university as old as ours there will be many regrettable incidents involving administrators whose values are different from ours, and not all of them are easily verifiable after much time has passed.”
Tucked away in the Boston Public Library’s digital archives are a pair of photo negatives. They depict 10 men in bright white sheets, pointy hats, and cut-out eye holes, posed around the John Harvard Statue. In one shot, a hunching Klansman, propped up in the statue's lap, turns his body to face the statue, staring down the cameraman.
There are hints of formal wear; dress shoes and slacks peek out underneath the white robes. A man on the far right holds a boater hat, historically synonymous with Harvard Class Day attire. This was Class Day 1924. At Harvard’s graduation, students took a break from midday commencement exercises, donned sheets, and celebrated by playing dress-up as the Klan.
The photo description read: “Harvard Klass Kow & Klans — students having fun.”
A friend had alerted me to these photos last summer — their existence, and the lack of immediately available information about the Klan at Harvard, were alarming.
I asked history lecturer Zachary B. Nowak about the KKK at Harvard in the 1920s under University President A. Lawrence Lowell, Class of 1877. Nowak teaches a popular class History 1636: “Intro to Harvard History: Beyond the Three Lies” and is writing a book on the “people’s history” of Harvard’s 385-year past.
Nowak, alongside almost every scholar I asked, was not aware of the KKK’s presence at Harvard.
He was stunned when I showed him the photos of the Klan at Harvard, yet viewed their existence with “less surprise.”
“This is part and parcel of a long Harvard tradition of support for white supremacy,” Nowak says, calling the Lowell years some of Harvard’s most regressive.
Similarly, University of California, Berkeley sociologist Jerome B. “Jerry” Karabel ’72, who has studied Lowell’s presidency at Harvard, says Lowell was prejudiced “on each and every issue that has contemporary relevance” — an imperialist, racist, anti-Semite, sexist, and so on.
“He is one of the very few people who would check every single box,” Karabel says, bluntly. “That simply cannot be written off to be the ‘spirit of the times.’”
The first Black Harvard doctorate and famed activist W. E. B. Du Bois, Class of 1890, even publicly condemned Lowell’s attitudes on race. Amid another scandal when Lowell attempted to expel Black students from Harvard dorms, Du Bois wrote in Crisis Magazine that he thought Lowell was an ally to violent Southern vigilantes. The NAACP echoed his comments, writing in an official statement at the time that Lowell was “putting into effect the program proclaimed by the infamous Ku Klux Klan.”
Werner M. Sollors, one of Harvard’s early Department of African and African American Studies faculty, says the KKK “showed up” in his research on Lowell. But Sollors did not explore it further, because he focused his research on “Black presence” at Harvard, rather than the “worst opposition of racial integration.”
Sollors co-edited “Blacks at Harvard,” likely the first major record of Black Harvard affiliates, published in the early 1990s. (At the time, Harvard University Press declined to publish his book, saying “nobody would be interested” in it and that they do not publish books “only of Harvard interests,” Sollors says. HUP wrote in a statement it could not account this response years later but that this does not reflect its editorial policy.)
Sollors says that confronting obstacles to openness and equity in Harvard’s past is vital, and that “the Klan certainly was a very big obstacle.”
“It’s a burning cross in the ivory tower,” he says.
Sollors adds, “You will find out things that are before your time at an institution, and you are a little bit aghast at what you find.”
One of the earliest attempts to reconcile with the University’s past in connection to slavery came in 2007, when history professor Sven Beckert embarked on a research project, “Harvard and Slavery: Seeking a Forgotten History.”
Katherine M. Stevens, then a graduate student who collaborated with Beckert on the project, writes in a statement that the initiative was inspired by Brown University’s early attempts to reckon with its historical connections to slavery. The group touched on a legacy of scientific racism which “extended well into the 20th century,” but deeper explorations of the continuing legacy of slavery in the 20th century were only “suggested” at the time.
In November 2019, Bacow announced Harvard’s Legacy of Slavery initiative, as a University-sanctioned successor building off of Beckert’s research project. And like its predecessor, the current initiative has yet to pay much attention to the 20th century.
The Legacy of Slavery initiative is divvied into subcommittees that study specific aspects of slavery’s continued footprint at the University. In her subcommittee within the project, Professor Evelynn M. Hammonds — former Dean of Harvard College — says she has focused more so on the 19th-century history than the 20th-century racism that slavery laid the foundations of.
Radcliffe Institute Dean Tomiko Brown-Nagin, who directs the initiative, said in an interview that the real focus of the project is Harvard’s earlier history because there is a “greater need” for understanding Harvard’s “direct ties” to slavery.
Brown-Nagin says that beyond individual scholars, she is unaware of any other program to study Harvard’s 20th-century racial history.
“It can’t be a committee about the entirety of the history of race, racism, and racial injustice at and through Harvard, because that would be a neverending committee,” adds Meira Levinson, a School of Education professor who is part of the initiative.
“There will be allusions to the 20th-century history” in the group’s forthcoming report, Brown-Nagin says. “However, the 20th-century history is fairly well-known.”
Yet it is not clear that Harvard’s ties to the Klan are well-known to all.
Hammonds says she was “shocked” when she saw the photos. Having grown up in Atlanta, Ga., she says the stories she knew about the KKK were those of “terror.”
“I certainly wouldn’t have thought it would find fertile ground at Harvard,” Hammonds says. “I was truly shocked to see them standing around John Harvard’s statue.”
At the turn of the millennium, a Crimson magazine article written by Lauren E. Baer ’02 was among the earliest contemporary acknowledgments of the Klan at Harvard.
Baer tells me she heard rumors that there had been a branch of the KKK at Harvard and began her search in the Harvard Libraries.
“Finding evidence of it in the University archives was a surreal and unsettling experience, and pointed to a history of racism and anti-Semitism at Harvard that had gone unexamined,” Baer wrote to me in an email.
After her article’s publication, however, she wrote that it went largely unnoticed by students and administrators.
The library docket of evidence she refers to, HUD 3502, contains a Crimson article on the Harvard Klan which lay it bare in portentous detail.
HUD 3502, dated in the fall semester of 1923, sets the stage for the aforementioned Klan commencement photos in 1924.
Purportedly founded on campus in 1921, Harvard’s KKK chapter arose at the same time as the reviled, second iteration of the nationwide Ku Klux Klan took prominence during and after World War I.
According to the docket from 1923, the Harvard KKK, while not on the fringes of University life, was leading a half-existence with its “shadow” hanging over campus.
“The Harvard Klan is inactive. But it is very far from being disorganized, nor can I say that even now its influence is unfelt,” an unnamed Harvard Klan member said of his organization. The Crimson’s “traditional policy” at the time awarded all of the Klan members anonymity.
The latter half of 1923 proved to be a crescendo of activity for the Harvard Klan. There was a membership drive with hopes for a public announcement and platform despite the group’s “considerable secrecy.” There was even talk of a Radcliffe College chapter for Klanswomen.
“Harvard, considered the stronghold of culture and conservatism, is about to try its strength with the boasted omnipotence of the Invisible Empire,” the article stated.
The article continued, “The Harvard Ku Klux Klan has only been waiting for the favorable moment to show its strength.”
The author of the 1923 Crimson article also speculated on internal divides within the Harvard Klan.
Some Harvard Klan members believed their presence was redundant because the University was already “100 percent American,” in the exclusionary, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant sense. Yet others saw Harvard as the opposite, a stronghold of racial, religious, and political “filth” that the Klan would not be able to break into.
A day after the article’s publication, NAACP secretary James Weldon Johnson sent a telegram to Lowell and the Harvard Board of Overseers condemning their college’s outgrowth of the KKK.
“The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People wishes to go on record as believing that it would be better to close the University than to permit it to become a vehicle for disseminating the poison of race and religious hatred,” Johnson wrote. “We trust that every effort will be made to discover those responsible for bringing this organization into Harvard and that they will be expelled.”
Neither Baer nor I could find any record of Lowell responding to the telegram or otherwise acknowledging the Klan’s presence on campus. According to SUNY Plattsburgh historian Mark P. Richard, many Massachusetts college presidents joined together in an anti-Klan effort to identify and prosecute found-out Klansmen in November 1923. I could not find any record of Lowell joining such a cause.
One month earlier, October 1923, the Cambridge Chronicle reported on two KKK meetings in North Cambridge, Mass.
Many Harvard students attended these biweekly meetings of the Cambridge chapter of the KKK, according to The Crimson, revealing the existence of pro-Klan sentiment despite the lack of a formally-recognized branch at the College.
Students switched to the “intellectual” Brookline, Mass. Klan chapter after becoming disillusioned with Cambridge. Harvard Klansmen thought the Cambridge chapter was controlled by “low-brows.”
An unnamed Harvard alumnus said to The Crimson in 1923 that 300 “Harvard men” attended a Boston KKK rally mid-October that no media outlets reported on. Harvard Klansmen, reluctant to be recognized as an official student organization because University policies would imperil their secrecy, continued to meet unofficially or at local metropolitan chapters.
In November 1923, the Klan draped a “flaring banner” on Massachusetts Avenue in opposition to Cambridge Mayor Edward W. Quinn. Amid mayoral elections, Quinn had stated the previous day, “If I knew there was a chapter of the Klan at Harvard, I’d come down and break it up!”
In the early 1920s, a former Harvard Klansman said he had been threatened by the Klan for being “indiscreet” with their clandestine activities, the New York Times reported at the time. He reported the threat on his life to a “Harvard College office,” which in turn called it “undoubtedly” a joke. The student eventually left Harvard for fear of what the Klan might do.
At the same time that the Klan’s presence was growing, another organization, the Blue Shirts Club, had formed to combat social issues plaguing campus. But while its platform included strong condemnations of the KKK at Harvard, it does not appear to have mounted any successful opposition. And the club’s priorities wavered, with its stance against cars on campus “taking precedence even over its condemnation of the Ku-Klux Klan,” the New York Herald Tribune reported in 1923.
Mostly unchecked and unashamed by the academic year’s end, Harvard Klansmen posed for that photo-op in front of the John Harvard Statue. The Blue Shirt Club, meanwhile, apparently sloughed off into inactivity. And there, public records of the Klan at Harvard in the 1920s seem to stop.
In his family, Kent A. Garrett Jr. ’63 is one generation removed from sharecroppers. Having grown up in Brooklyn, N.Y., he says going to Harvard was so foreign, it was “kind of like landing on the moon.”
Garrett was one of 18 Black members of Harvard’s class of 1963. After racing across the country to interview his former classmates, he anthologized their experiences in his book “The Last Negroes at Harvard,” published last year.
He tells me that Fred Lee Glimp Jr. ’50, then Dean of Admissions who later became the Dean of the College, called him and other Black students at Harvard “an experiment.” Garrett remembers a white classmate even “studied” him and the other Black students, dubbing them the “White Shadows in the Yard,” in a class paper that received an A. Racial hatred as glaring as cross burning, Garrett says, was rare — but constant indignities and less aggressive forms of racism were regular.
Garrett joined Harvard just seven years after the cross burning and says that no students had “passed down” the history of the incident to him. He never learned about it until he began work on his book. But the cross burning’s legacy, in the form of institutional and interpersonal racism, blazed bright.
While he was at Harvard, Garrett said, students had a willingness to associate with the Klan as a “joke.”
“It was the thing to do — to be in the KKK,” Garrett recalls.
By mid-century, an organized Klan at Harvard had all but vanished. Instead “KKK” transformed into a frequent racist invocation, a conjuring jeered at Black and Jewish students.
The “KKK brothers,” in a 1937 demonstration reported on by The Crimson, released “flory crosses, crudely constructed from paper but none-the-less grimly reminiscent of [the] real thing” to float down and around the Dunster House courtyard.
“Perhaps KKK terrorism is not confined to the deep South,” a Dunster resident remarked at the time.
Between the 1950s and 1970s, Harvard students would sign up for or propose at least four separate screenings of “The Birth of a Nation,” a historic 1915 Klan manifesto turned three-hour film. All were criticized as being shown without historical context.
One screening, planned in the same year as the cross burning, was canceled after the NAACP put the pressure on, which “disappointed” the more than 250 students signed up, according to a Crimson article at the time.
Howard J. Phillips ’62, elected as Harvard’s student body president in 1962, was lauded by “The Cross and the Flag,” a Klan magazine, for his “patriotic” ideological bent. Phillips publicly and immediately disavowed the Klan. But later in life, Phillips invited Richard Shoff, the former Grand Kilgrapp (state secretary) of the Indiana Klan, to serve on a lobbying group governing board with him.
In several incidents across the 20th century, including one as late as 1996, students saw KKK leaflets, threatening letters, and KKK graffiti on campus.
Garrett never mentioned any acknowledgement from the University of the challenges he and other Black students at the time faced.
“Yale and Harvard were intent on keeping their Southern alumni happy,” he surmised.
Now 90 years old, Charles L. “Chuck” Greenblatt ’52, a member of the Society for Minority Rights, a student club that condemned the 1952 cross burning at the time, says his memory of the incident is fuzzy.
“I probably...accepted the story of the administration that it was sort of a prank,” Greenblatt admits in an interview.
Greenblatt, who hailed from a diverse small city in Ohio, was one of several students who worked with the NAACP to recruit more Black Harvard applicants. In describing Harvard’s attitude towards his recruitment efforts and the cross burning, he says its deans had an air of nonchalance.
Long after the incident, he says, no other Harvard administration has publicly acknowledged the cross burning.
The Class of 1955 alumni secretary Warren M. “Renny” Little ’55, however, is “quite aware” of the cross burning, but did not elaborate much further in a statement to me.
He adds, “It was an embarrassment to all concerned and best buried.”
To continue to bury this event, along with the larger history of the KKK at Harvard, would further the common narrative of Harvard as a “bastion of liberalism,” as Nowak puts it.
Yet Harvard’s institutional and social values have, at points throughout the 20th century, often seemed to be more representative of the American racial climate than ahead of it.
Karabel, the sociologist who studied elitism and admissions at Harvard in the 20th century, said Harvard then was still a mouthpiece of “the Protestant upper class” despite a number of Jewish and nonwhite students trickling in.
In contrast to the explicit racial violence associated with the South, Nowak says Harvard’s Boston Brahmin contributed to an “equally toxic” and “subtle” intellectual undergrowth of white supremacy.
Yet from the 1920s Klan chapter to the 1952 cross burning, some members of the Harvard gentry nevertheless flirted with a less “subtle,” more violent tendency.
So what does the University do with this history?
Harvard leadership has approached historical reconciliation through thorough scholarship and examination, which can sometimes make such efforts feel sluggish — a “psychological effect,” of Harvard’s prominence and “symbolism,” Sollors says.
“[Change] becomes a lot of hand-wringing,” he adds.
Karabel says that adjacent to the Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery initiative, a “parallel inquiry” into the 20th century racial history of the University is “warranted.”
“No reason to limit it to slavery and the 19th century,” he adds.
Such inquiries are not easy. “Going to the history of the 20th century is harder because it is more recent,” Sollors remarked,“and so the implications are actually much stronger.”
Harvard junior Samantha C. W. “Sam” O’Sullivan ’22 co-founded the Generational African American Students Association in 2019 and has since focused her efforts on educating others about the legacy of slavery in a Harvard context. She says she was unaware of the long history of the KKK at Harvard.
O’Sullivan says the Legacy of Slavery Initiative is “long overdue,” but that she wants to push for more “actual action” beyond research efforts buried in bureaucracy.
“The whole committee is treating the issue as if it’s in retrospect, how has Harvard done these things in the past, and not so much on what they are continuing to do,” she says. “It feels like the University does not care about these issues, or is more interested in forming committees and talking about these things very intellectually, but not in a very concrete sense.”
If she were to lead the initiative, O’Sullivan says she would start at the present and work her way back, in place of the old-to-new approach of the current initiative.
Garrett says he finds the initiative promising, but was curious as to why they seem to stop at 1865. He says he hopes the racism he and other students endured throughout the 20th century can be taught about through courses and other academic offerings at the College.
Professor Meira Levinson, who co-leads the curriculum subcommittee for the Legacy of Slavery initiative, says she is not sure what place the 20th-century history will play in their efforts, and that it was “too early” to share specifics on the “entry points” for students’ learning about slavery.
Hammonds echoes these comments, saying they are still in the “exploration phase” of research for the report.
In an emailed statement, Brown-Nagin wrote “the Committee is very much engaged in work with bearing on the present,” including an initiative by several professors to document the experiences of Black students descendent from enslaved people. She added that the Radcliffe Institute, which oversees the Legacy of Slavery initiative, has funded several student projects, some of which grapple with “contemporary legacies” of slavery.
Nowak also says the University is taking steps adjacent to the initiative — such as a committee on reforming signage and a mapping effort of “inclusive symbols” around campus — that deal with racism at Harvard in the 20th century.
Both he and Karabel concluded that a significant first step to reconciling with the history and perpetuation of racism at Harvard in the 20th century would be the removal of Lowell’s name from Lowell House dormitory, as students pushed for last summer. Harvard has convened two committees to review name changes, but they are still in the research and discussion stages of their work.
Karabell says Harvard is “behind the times” for not already striking Lowell’s name down after Yale and Princeton removed the names of Calhoun College and Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy, respectively.
University spokesperson Jason A. Newton declined to comment for this article.
While several scholars I talked to wished the Legacy of Slavery initiative would broaden its scope, all recognized it as an important first step in a long line of much-needed steps from students, faculty, and administrators to address the past.
“Telling the history of this very complex institution is going to take a while, but the most important thing is the willingness to engage with the history as we uncover it,” Hammonds says.
“These dynamics did not emerge overnight, nor will they be quickly disentangled,” Brown-Nagin wrote in a statement to me about the Legacy of Slavery initiative. “I ask members of our community to give us time equal to the magnitude and complexity of our task.”
But O’Sullivan finds the University’s attempts to claw closer to historical understanding still nebulous and ultimately painful to some students.
“There’s so much that we as students don’t know,” she says. “Harvard’s lack of transparency is almost speaking more volumes than the things they are doing. ”
“Especially to Black students, that's one of the largest forms of violence.”
There are many stones unturned in my own research: surviving alumni of the cross burning I didn’t talk to, parts of Lowell’s personal archive marked as classified, documents inaccessible due to the pandemic. The 20th-century story of racial injustice in Harvard’s most accessible historical period retreats every day — with the fading of memory and death of alumni — without a thorough cataloguing. Just like the rest of Harvard’s past, the last 100 years need their own reckoning, their own moment to be added to a broader band of Harvard and American history.
“It is my hope that the work of this new initiative will help the university gain important insights about our past and the enduring legacy of slavery,” Bacow wrote in his 2019 announcement of the Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery Initiative, “while also providing an ongoing platform for our conversations about our present and our future as a university community committed to having our minds opened and improved by learning.” That is my hope, as well.
—Staff writer Simon J. Levien can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @simonjlevien.