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Charles Sumner and His Family Deserve A Harvard House

By Prince Williams, Contributing Opinion Writer
Prince Williams ’25 is a History Concentrator in Adams House.

Every first-year student at Harvard swipes their ID at Annenberg dining hall and walks past a portrait of Charles Sumner. After graduating from Harvard College, Sumner spent 22 years as a public servant representing Massachusetts in the Senate. Throughout his time in Congress, he was famous for his fierce support for the abolition of slavery and unpopular belief in equality for all people. For his accomplishments, Sumner deserves to have a Harvard House in his name.

On May 5th, 2022, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay sent out an email detailing a new institutional process for FAS affiliates to petition for the denaming of Harvard structures. Per that email, the administration will consider denaming spaces “based on the perception that a namesake's actions or beliefs were ‘abhorrent’ in the context of current values.”

The new denaming process has one glaring omission, however: Students seemingly cannot argue for whom these structures should be renamed — they can scrub names, but offer no alternatives. Renaming is a significant part of restoring the harm of the name that came before. It offers an opportunity to permanently reconstitute whomever we choose. The goal is not just ripping down plaques of those that have lagged behind the moral character of Harvard; the ultimate goal is to celebrate the people that represent the best of the University.

Case in point: the unwavering stances in the pursuit of justice that defined Senator Charles Sumner’s career in the halls of Congress. In cooperation with members of the Women’s National Loyal League, he helped organize a petition with over half a million signatures for the abolition of slavery, which he used to push for the expansion of the Emancipation Proclamation. Furthermore, his proposal for a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery was too radical for some of his colleagues, as it attempted to recognize emancipated Black Americans equally under the law. He also famously initially opposed the 14th Amendment, because the bill did not sufficiently protect the right of Black Americans to vote. In these and other ways, Sumner was the John Brown of the legislature, uncompromising in his belief in the universal rights of men.

Charles Sumner’s ideological framework was far from epiphany. Charles Pinckney Sumner, Senator Sumner’s father, played an influential role in shaping his son’s politics. Also a graduate of Harvard College, he instilled his own abolitionist views in his son, teaching that abolition would mean nothing unless white Americans were willing to “learn to have a good feeling toward [Black Americans], and treat them as well.”

Moreover, Sumner’s grandfather, Job Sumner, fought for freedom during the colonial period. Job was admitted to Harvard at age 20, entering in November of 1774. When the American Revolution erupted, Sumner joined up with the patriot army, putting to use the skills he had learned with a Harvard military company that would later become known as the “Harvard Washington Corps.” Major Sumner was later recognized by the President and Fellows of Harvard University for his service in the armed forces, who honored him with a Master of Arts degree. When the eldest Sumner died, then-Vice President John Adams, Secretary of War Henry Knox, and other revolutionary officers attended Job Sumner’s funeral.

Sumner House has no shortage of names to replace. As of now, two of Harvard College’s Houses, Winthrop House and Mather House, are named after slaveholders. Eliot House and Lowell House, meanwhile, have eugenicists as namesakes. Presuming that chattel slavery, the genocide of native peoples, and belief in eugenics have become “‘abhorrent’ in the context of current values,” these Houses surely qualify to be denamed.

It would be especially fitting that a family with a lineage of abolitionists replaces a family with a lineage of enslavers: the Winthrops. Governor John Winthrop helped justify the Pequot War by claiming the superiority of advanced peoples to assert their “civil right” to the land. He owned the wife and two unnamed sons of Pequot sachem Mononotto and at least four other unidentified Indigenous people. The younger John Winthrop, a President of Harvard, owned two enslaved people named George and Scipio. To replace Winthrop House with Sumner House would be a symbolic gesture, but a significant one — a sign of a more serious commitment by Harvard to reckon with its ugliest history while embracing its best.

There are few families tied to the legacy of Harvard that come close to the honor and fortitude of the Sumner Family. Those who we choose to memorialize define what we as the Harvard community want to embody in the future. As we work to become a more just community, we must reckon with our history. That process can begin at Sumner House.

Prince Williams ’25 is a History Concentrator in Adams House.

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