fb-pixel Skip to main content

Harvard is studying its ties to slavery, but is that enough?

Calls from students and scholars for Harvard to make restitution for its ties to slavery and the financial and educational benefits it reaped are only growing louder

Tamara Lanier of Connecticut says the photographed slaves are her ancestors; she sued Harvard University for the images.
Tamara Lanier of Connecticut says the photographed slaves are her ancestors; she sued Harvard University for the images.Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

A Massachusetts judge earlier this month ruled that Harvard University owns some stark images of an enslaved man and his daughter, a victory that the college says will allow it to find an appropriate home for the controversial daguerreotypes and ensure that they are more accessible to the public.

But the case is far from resolved. Calls from students and scholars for Harvard to make restitution for its ties to slavery and the financial and educational benefits it reaped are only growing louder.

Tamara Lanier, the Connecticut woman who claims that the South Carolina slaves who were photographed — Renty and Delia — are her ancestors and sued Harvard for the images, said she plans to file an appeal in the coming weeks.

Advertisement



Some Harvard students are also pushing the college, one of the world’s richest institutions, to begin robust discussions about reparations to atone for its role in supporting slavery and the inequities that continue to exist because of racial subjugation.

“The university could be doing much,” said Rebecca Thompson, 20, a Harvard junior who since taking classes about slavery at the college, has been meeting with other students to discuss what the university should do to atone for its past. “Harvard can’t pretend that it doesn’t owe any responsibility to the descendants of enslaved people. We need to discuss reparations. It’s not enough to just talk about our legacy.”

The state court judge may have dismissed Lanier’s case, but Harvard is facing increasing pressure to address the moral questions raised by these earliest known images of enslaved people in the United States, said Craig Wilder, an MIT history professor and author of “Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities.”

The daguerreotypes are a reminder that the relationship between Harvard and slavery was more than financial. The very educational project itself benefited from slavery,” Wilder said. “It’s a raw and naked example.…They’re going to have to respond to these parts of their histories.”

Advertisement



A 2017 program conference using as cover art an 1850 daguerreotype of the slave Renty, part of a Harvard professor’s study. Tamara Lanier sued Harvard University for ownership of daguerreotypes of slaves, whom she counts as ancestors.
A 2017 program conference using as cover art an 1850 daguerreotype of the slave Renty, part of a Harvard professor’s study. Tamara Lanier sued Harvard University for ownership of daguerreotypes of slaves, whom she counts as ancestors. NYT

The images, part of a collection commissioned in 1850 by one of Harvard’s most renowned and controversial scientists, Louis Agassiz, were used to bolster his belief in white biological superiority. The black-and-white portraits of slaves stripped of their clothes were locked away in a cabinet in Harvard’s Peabody Museum until 1976, when they were discovered.

And they are also not the only relics of slavery at the Peabody.

In January, Harvard president Lawrence Bacow announced that the Peabody had discovered in its collection the remains of 15 people of African descent who were probably alive when slavery was legal in the United States.

Harvard has said that it is trying to understand and come to terms with its past. A university committee is considering what to do with the recently discovered remains, including whether to return or bury them, and is trying to develop a more comprehensive policy on how to ethically handle human remains.

After Lanier filed her lawsuit in 2019, Harvard also launched a $5 million initiative at its Radcliffe Institute to examine the university’s history with slavery.

A final report on the committee’s findings and recommendations is scheduled to be released toward the end of this year.

In a presentation recently Harvard officials said the initiative will catalogue the college’s history with slavery, develop walking tours of historical markers, produce additional teaching resources, and develop partnerships with the American Repertory Theater and filmmakers to tackle this legacy. The university is also documenting the experiences of Black Harvard students who were descended from slaves.

Advertisement



But Harvard officials declined to comment on whether the college is considering financial reparations, similar to what other universities across the country have done.

Harvard already has received one direct request for reparations. The prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, Gaston Browne, in 2019 asked Harvard to help finance the Caribbean nation’s public university, arguing that Harvard Law School was founded more than 200 years ago with money from a powerful Antiguan sugar plantation owner and slave trader, Isaac Royall Jr.

Tamara Lanier pointed out the name Big Renty on an inventory from 1834 listing the slaves on the Columbia, S.C. plantation of Col. Thomas Taylor.
Tamara Lanier pointed out the name Big Renty on an inventory from 1834 listing the slaves on the Columbia, S.C. plantation of Col. Thomas Taylor.NYT

“The committee is very much engaged in work with bearing on the present,” said Tomiko Brown-Nagin, Radcliffe Institute dean, in a message posted online late Friday. “The legacies of slavery and racism that shadow our society and our university reflect a complicated history. These dynamics did not emerge overnight, nor will they be quickly disentangled.”

Nationwide, universities have been grappling with their participation in slavery. Some owned and sold slaves. Others counted slave traders and plantation owners among their most influential benefactors.

In recent years, campuses have launched committees to study that history and some have renamed buildings and erected memorials as a result. But since 2019, a small but growing number of colleges have begun paying restitution to help underrepresented students and communities of descendants through scholarships.

The Virginia Theological Seminary set aside $1.7 million for the descendants of the enslaved and for Black seminarians on the campus.

Advertisement



The Princeton Theological Seminary agreed to spend $28 million in five years to fund scholarships and fellowships for descendants of slaves or for others from underrepresented groups and hire more faculty to study the legacy of slavery.

Georgetown University, which was founded by the Jesuits, promised to raise $400,000 a year to benefit descendants of the 272 enslaved people sold by the college before the Civil War. And this month, the Jesuit order announced that it would raise $100 million to establish a fund that would provide grants to organizations working on racial reconciliation projects, offer educational scholarships and grants to the descendants of the enslaved people it once owned, and give emergency aid to old and infirmed descendants.

Before the pandemic struck, some of the smaller, predominantly white colleges had been exploring ways to work together to help support historically Black colleges, by helping them tap into more research funding, for example, said Kirt von Daacke, an assistant dean at the University of Virginia who heads a consortium of universities studying slavery.

But for many colleges, discussions about restitution are still fraught and can pit students against powerful alumni and donors, von Daacke said, so many administrators would prefer to avoid the topic.

“We’re at a moment where student demands and administrative and alumni positions are miles apart,” von Daacke said. “There isn’t a lot of space for healthy debate.”

It’s unclear, however, that Harvard will be able to avoid the debate much longer.

Advertisement



Caitlin Hopkins, a former Harvard lecturer who wrote a preliminary report for the president’s office in 2018 on how the university profited from slavery, said she recommended that reparations be part of the discussion. She suggested the university engage more with descendant communities and consider whether its vast endowment was helping or hurting communities of color.

At the time, the recommendations did not go far. Hopkins is hoping this time is different.

“I don’t think studying ties to slavery is enough,” Hopkins said. “Without reparations, what’s the point? Harvard can’t get credit for studying its history without changing its behavior in the present.”



Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.