For nearly 400 years, Harvard’s most famous motto has been a single word, Veritas, or truth. In the spirit of that slogan, university officials said, Harvard on Tuesday published the first full accounting of the institution’s historical ties to slavery.
In a sweeping report, the university also acknowledged its complicity in 19th-century “race science” and 20th-century racial discrimination, and announced the creation of a $100 million fund to address the legacies of slavery, including inequalities in educational outcomes, that persist to this day.
“Harvard benefited from and in some ways perpetuated practices that were profoundly immoral,” Harvard president Lawrence Bacow wrote in a letter to the university community about the report. “Consequently, I believe we bear a moral responsibility to do what we can to address the persistent corrosive effects of those historical practices on individuals, on Harvard, and on our society.”
The report, produced by a team of faculty and student researchers led by a high-ranking dean, describes a range of ties to slavery dating from the university’s founding in the 17th century to abolition in the 19th.
Harvard presidents, as well as faculty and staff, enslaved more than 70 people who labored in their homes and on campus, where they fed generations of students, according to the report. The Harvard Corporation, the entity that controls Harvard’s wealth to this day, profited from slavery through loans to Caribbean planters, whose businesses depended on slave labor, and investments in American textile mills, whose raw material — cotton — was produced by women and men enslaved in the South.
Wealth produced by slave labor also flowed into the university’s coffers through major bequests, some of which resulted in long-lasting legacies. They included an endowed professorship at the law school that until this week bore the name of the brutal owner of a Caribbean plantation.
Other names tied to slavery still adorn campus. Harvard’s second oldest building, Wadsworth House, was once the home of university president Benjamin Wadsworth. Two enslaved people, Titus and Venus, served the Wadsworth family within the house’s walls. The Perkins Professorship of Astronomy and Mathematics is named for James Perkins, a major donor who enslaved people, including an unknown number who were traded in Haiti in the late 19th century.
The university’s ties to slavery are not an entirely new revelation. Previous scholarship, including work published by Harvard historian Sven Beckert in 2011, laid the foundation for Tuesday’s report.
But this latest work — a 130-page monograph, including 51 pages of endnotes — bears the university’s imprimatur and strives to document every discoverable connection between Harvard and slavery.
The report also goes further than previous work by describing how Harvard perpetuated the legacies of slavery — theories of white supremacy and ongoing racial discrimination — even after emancipation.
Harvard academics and at least one Harvard president promoted “race science” — the 19th-century practice of creating taxonomies of human beings that placed white people at the top of a hierarchy and Black people at the bottom — which was used in the 20th century to justify state-sanctioned discrimination in the United States.
The report also shines a light on Harvard’s anti-Black and anti-Native discrimination, which persisted into the second half of the 20th century in the form of limited admissions of unfavored groups and exclusion of Black people, Native Americans, and others from housing and other features of campus life.
The legacy of Louis Agassiz, a well-known 19th-century Harvard scientist, comes in for extensive scrutiny. The report describes his enthusiasm for phrenology, the discredited field of research that sought to discover differences in human traits, including intellect, along racial lines by measuring skulls.
The report quotes Agassiz writing of African Americans, “It is impossible for me to repress the feeling that they are not the same blood as us.” (Last year, a judge dismissed a lawsuit brought against Harvard by a Connecticut woman, Tamara Lanier, seeking to gain ownership of photographs commissioned by Agassiz that, she says, depict her enslaved ancestors.)
“This report is unflinching,” said Tomiko Brown-Nagin, a constitutional law professor and dean of the Harvard Radcliffe Institute, who chaired the committee that produced the report.
The committee wrote recommendations for how Harvard can make amends. Among other initiatives, the committee recommended that Harvard fund educational opportunities for communities descended from enslaved people, such as Black Americans in the South, Native Americans in New England and beyond, and people of African descent in the Caribbean.
Specifically, it proposed the creation of an exchange program with historically black colleges and universities that would enable students from those schools and Harvard to “study abroad” at each other’s universities. The report also called for the creation of an “imposing physical memorial” on campus dedicated to people enslaved by men with ties to Harvard.
In his letter Tuesday, Bacow described the recommendations as “a helpful set of guideposts.” Martha Minow, a Harvard professor and former dean of Harvard Law School, will chair an implementation committee that will decide how to use the promised funds.
According to Beckert, the $100 million pledged by Harvard is the biggest ever commitment of funding by a university to redress its ties to slavery.
Cierra Brown, a Harvard junior and president of the Generational African-American Students Association, which focuses on advocacy related to the legacy of slavery, said her group is “pleased” with the $100 million commitment, while acknowledging that it might not be enough. Harvard’s endowment grew to $53 billion in 2021.
“It’s a huge step forward,” Brown said. “[But] if you were to estimate the financial contribution of slavery [to Harvard] this would not be necessarily the total summation.”
Ana Lucia Araujo, a historian of slavery at Howard University, applauded the report as thorough but cautioned that the recommendations are “vague” and nonbinding. She also noted that the report does not call for financial reparations to direct descendants of people enslaved by men affiliated with Harvard.
“Reparations means different things to different people,” Brown-Nagin said in an interview, adding that reparations might not be the most apt word to describe Harvard’s plans. The report, as well as other materials released by Harvard, stress that the university is attempting to leverage its expertise in education to redress its history.
Harvard joins a growing list of colleges and universities to acknowledge — and try to make amends for — their ties to slavery.
After the publication of a 2006 report detailing its own ties to slavery, Brown University endowed a $10 million fund to support Providence’s public schools. In 2015, Georgetown University began publicly reckoning with the sale of 272 enslaved people down the Mississippi River by Jesuits connected to the university and, in 2019, following a student referendum, promised to raise $400,000 annually to benefit descendants of those enslaved people.
The roots of Harvard’s report go back to 2007. That’s when Beckert, a historian of slavery, read Brown University’s report.
“I wondered if there is not a similar story to be told about Harvard,” Beckert said in an interview for a documentary on the university’s ties to slavery, which also was released Tuesday. Three years later, he published his research on Harvard’s ties to slavery — cowritten with graduate student Katherine Stevens — which the current report expands upon.
In 2008, Harvard Law School professor Janet Halley published work about Isaac Royall, the slaveholding owner of a Caribbean plantation who donated to Harvard — and endowed the professorship that Halley held. Halley’s research prompted student protests and led Harvard Law School to remove from its official crest symbols adopted from the Royall family’s own seal. On Tuesday, Harvard Law School’s dean, John Manning, announced that the Royall Chair would be retired.
In 2016, former Harvard president Drew Gilpin-Faust convened a committee to study Harvard’s ties to slavery and wrote that “Harvard was directly complicit in America’s system of racial bondage.” The same year, she and Representative John Lewis unveiled a plaque on Harvard’s campus honoring four enslaved people who labored at Harvard.
The Harvard report caps nearly three years of work by dozens of faculty and student researchers. It seeks to challenge the “incomplete, if popular, narrative” that Massachusetts was a fount of resistance to slavery, noting the deep ties between the early New England economy’s reliance on slave labor in the Caribbean.
“This effectively made Boston a slave society,” wrote historian Wendy Warren, as quoted in the report, “but one where most of the enslaved toiled elsewhere.”
In an interview, Beckert said that Harvard’s efforts must be understood as a partial and incomplete response to the history he and other researchers have uncovered.
“Nobody can undo the damage done to people in the past,” he said. “All we can do is try to address some of the long-term consequences that came from this history.”
Mike Damiano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.