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Last week, Harvard’s ties to the Ku Klux Klan in the early 1900s were made public with the reveal of a not-so-shocking yet disturbing photo: Ten Harvard student KKK members donning white robes crowded the John Harvard statue on Class Day 1924. What struck me was not the underlying bigotry and white supremacy that seemed to fit so perfectly with an administration that accepted very few Black students at the time, but the anonymity of those ten white students. To this day, we have no evidence of who those students are.
A name that we do know is that of Black Harvard undergraduate, J. Max Bond Jr. ’55, who was admitted to Harvard College at the age of 16. In 1952, Bond witnessed a cross burning take place in Harvard Yard. Decades later, the perpetrators continue to live in the bliss of anonymity — while Bond was reportedly threatened with suspension from the University should he go to the media following the incident. Bond’s attempt to hold his white classmates accountable for such public displays of racism was futile, and the cross burning was dismissed as a simple prank.
Bond’s legacy has yet to be established on Harvard’s campus, but he deserves to be commemorated. So, this piece is for J. Max Bond Jr. The burden to unearth and protest racism should have never fallen on Bond in the first place.
As of now — and apparently, since the 1920s — this work has fallen on the backs of Black scholars, for free. Whether it's relaying stories of the Harvard branches of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1900s or calling out microaggressions in academia, Black people have been at the forefront of these efforts.
In my day to day, I find myself pushing back on the generalizations made in my government classes based on just one dataset (which was likely biased to begin with) and questioning the overwhelmingly white literature we read in my humanities classes. I’ve been the student that receives the seemingly sweet but truly unsettling “thank you” messages in the class GroupMe chats after speaking up when I noticed an oversight in lecture. I’ve been asked how this country can fix racism, as if I had anything to do with its creation. There is no doubt that navigating these experiences is unfair for Black students. Black students should not be expected to hold Harvard or any other institution accountable for its complacency toward discrimination, ever.
Harvard’s recent attempts to reconcile its history with its supposed goals for diversity and inclusion on campus must happen without increasing the burden on students of color. Black students’ outrage cannot always spark these discussions. Members of the Harvard administration must instigate these discussions among themselves. Combatting and dismantling racism requires collective action — so it’s time for everyone else to step up. Those who profit from racism, even unknowingly, must recognize it. Stop being shocked that racism has played a significant role in the infrastructure of our institution. Let’s start actively acknowledging it.
The Presidential Committee on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery is working to examine Harvard’s ties to slavery. The goals of this new committee sound noble enough, but it needs to do more than just symbolic work on reckoning with Harvard’s current and former ties to slavery — and at the very least must publicly denounce them. The University’s objectives also need to extend beyond a performative and ambiguous umbrella goal of "diversity and inclusion," and instead take tangible actions to help Black students on campus feel fully supported by the administration.
Black students cannot be the designated race experts anymore. I have been one of those students. J. Max Bond Jr. was one of those students. It is not our job to educate the University and its affiliates on how to address its historic oppression of people of color.
If Harvard wants to strengthen their new initiative for more diversity and institutional accountability, Black students alone can’t fuel it.
Ebony M. Smith ’24 is a Crimson Editorial editor in Eliot House.
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