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Harvard Pledges to Return Human Remains of Enslaved People to Descendents

Many of the human remains in Harvard's museum collections are held in the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.
Many of the human remains in Harvard's museum collections are held in the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. By Truong L. Nguyen
By Cara J. Chang, Isabella B. Cho, and Tarah D. Gilles, Crimson Staff Writers

UPDATED: September 16, 2022, at 5:17 a.m.

Harvard University agreed on Thursday to return the human remains of 19 individuals who were likely enslaved to their descendants, accepting more than a dozen recommendations from a committee tasked with examining how the school should treat the human remains in its museum collections.

The pledge comes three months after a leaked draft of the committee’s report revealed that Harvard holds the human remains of thousands of Native Americans and 19 individuals who were likely enslaved. The committee’s final report, released Thursday by the University, is largely the same as the draft from April.

Harvard agreed Thursday to accelerate its return of Native American human remains, which has been required by federal law since 1990. It also pledged to build new spaces on campus to house human remains and memorialize the individuals kept in its collections.

The remains studied by the committee were obtained by Harvard “under the violent and inhumane regimes of slavery and colonialism” and represent “the University’s engagement and complicity in these categorically immoral systems,” the final report reads.

“Moreover, we know that skeletal remains were utilized to demonstrate spurious and racist differences to confirm existing social hierarchies and structures,” the report states.

The report’s first recommendation called on Harvard to facilitate repatriation by working to identify direct descendants or descendant communities of the likely enslaved individuals whose remains are in the school’s collections.

University President Lawrence S. Bacow formed two new committees Thursday that will be tasked with carrying out the recommendations — a Human Remains Returns Committee and a Human Remains Research Review Committee.

“It is never too late to afford others the dignity and respect they were denied in life, and it is never too soon to begin the process of recognition and, with hope, reconciliation,” Bacow wrote in an email announcing the report on Thursday.

The Human Remains Returns Committee will be tasked with determining how the University should handle remains of individuals who were not enslaved or who fall outside the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, which requires that Native American remains be returned to their descendants or tribes. The Human Remains Research Review Committee will “work with Museum staff on assessing requests” by Harvard or other scholars to use skeletal remains.

Harvard also agreed to reconfigure its stewardship of human remains by creating a “purpose-designed” viewing space, facilitating a review of existing academic practices and curricula on human remains, and memorializing individuals held in its collections.

In the report’s afterword, the chair of the committee that conducted the review, Evelynn M. Hammonds, wrote about her first visit to the storeroom in the Peabody Museum, which houses the human remains.

“My visit confirmed for me in a deep and profound way that a museum is not and should never be a place for the remains of humans,” she wrote. “In fact, how people are kept in a museum may be antithetical to practices of caring for the dead of the communities whose ‘remains’ are ‘stored’ in museums.”

Thursday’s report was interspersed with reflections from faculty on Harvard’s ties to slavery.

“For centuries, the remains of ‘others’ have been collected in the name of scientific progress—science of the sort that accepted their bodies as simple data, objects to be measured,” Harvard postdoctoral fellow Aja M. Lans wrote in one essay.

The report urged faculty across the University to craft curricula that engage the histories of human remains collections on campus, with a focus on the “ethical dimensions of their presence” and “how they reflect the complex history of the University.”

Thursday’s report comes eight months after Bacow commissioned the Steering Committee on Human Remains in Harvard Museum Collections to develop University-wide policies for collecting, displaying, and returning human remains. Bacow and Jane Pickering, director of the Peabody Museum, formally apologized then for past practices that allowed Harvard to amass a collection of more than 22,000 human remains.

The report is a major step in Harvard’s efforts to redress its history of slavery and discrimination. In April, the University published a landmark report that detailed the “integral” role slavery played in its history and pledged $100 million to a Legacy of Slavery Fund.

There is no mention in the legacy of slavery report or the human remains report issued on Thursday of a high-profile 2019 lawsuit brought by Tamara K. Lanier, who says the school illegally possesses daguerreotypes of two of her enslaved ancestors, Renty and Dalia. Massachusetts’ top court ruled in June that Lanier has grounds to sue the school for emotional distress, but rejected her claim to the photographs.

Hammonds wrote in Thursday’s human remains report that she hopes her committee’s work allows Harvard to begin redressing its ties to slavery.

“I hope our ancestors whose remains are in our care will see that we have begun our journey along the path that leads toward justice,” she wrote.

​​—Staff writer Cara J. Chang can be reached at cara.chang@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @CaraChang20.

—Staff writer Isabella B. Cho can be reached at isabella.cho@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @izbcho.

—Staff writer Tarah D. Gilles can be reached at tarah.gilles@thecrimson.com.

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