Magazine

Globe Magazine

A prestigious Harvard fellowship and its anti-immigrant namesake

Nativist Charles Warren’s name lives on at his alma mater.

Charles Warren.

Harvard’s Charles Warren Center is home to one of the most prestigious fellowships for scholars of American history. The center and fellowship are named after Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Charles Warren, whose widow donated $7 million to Harvard a half century ago. But Warren was also an unapologetic nativist who drafted the 1917 Espionage Act and cofounded the Immigration Restriction League. The league pushed eugenics and used inflammatory language to try to block the arrival of Italians, Jews, and other “undesirable” immigrants.

Contradictions like this one — between history and mission — have been fueling protests at elite college campuses. Last year, activist pressure led Harvard Law School to change its seal because of its association with slavery. Pressure also forced Princeton University to contemplate renaming its Woodrow Wilson public-policy school because of that president’s segregationist views.

Advertisement

Harvard historian Walter Johnson has been director of the Charles Warren Center for four years. At a rally in December, he called on administrators to make Harvard a sanctuary campus for undocumented immigrants. He acknowledges some disgust at being associated with Warren’s views on immigration. His aim with the benefactor’s money, he says, is “to re-purpose it for good.”

Johnson notes the irony that Warren’s funds have supported many progressive thinkers. The center’s first director was historian Oscar Handlin, son of immigrant Russian Jews and author of The Uprooted, a Pulitzer Prize-winning classic on immigration. Handlin helped persuade Congress in the 1960s to remove the quota system that Warren’s Immigration Restriction League had championed in the 1920s. Noam Maggor, who used his own recent Warren fellowship to research his new book, Brahmin Capitalism, feels conflicted. “These people shouldn’t be celebrated unambiguously as heroes of American history,” he says. Yet these names “accurately capture who governed society at the time.”

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

“If you walk around any of these elite campuses and dig into the names on the buildings,” Maggor says, “it’s ultimately going to lead you to slavery and labor exploitation and all those dark corners of American history.” People must remember that racism and xenophobia weren’t just prevalent in the South, he says. “To really get the story right, we have to trace it to places like Boston.” 

RELATED:

  Trump’s anti-immigration playbook was written 100 years ago. In Boston.

 After the stroke of Trump’s pen, a dramatic 34 hours

Advertisement

 A timeline of Trump’s immigration ban

Neil Swidey is a Globe Magazine staff writer. Send comments to neil.swidey@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @neilswidey.
Loading comments...
Real journalists. Real journalism. Subscribe to The Boston Globe today.
We hope you've enjoyed your free articles.
Continue reading by subscribing to Globe.com for just 99¢.
 Already a member? Log in Home
Subscriber Log In

We hope you've enjoyed your 5 free articles'

Stay informed with unlimited access to Boston’s trusted news source.

  • High-quality journalism from the region’s largest newsroom
  • Convenient access across all of your devices
  • Today’s Headlines daily newsletter
  • Subscriber-only access to exclusive offers, events, contests, eBooks, and more
  • Less than 25¢ a week
Marketing image of BostonGlobe.com
Marketing image of BostonGlobe.com