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After revealing hard truths, Harvard’s next tough task: Defining reparations

These schools are learning just how difficult, 150 years after abolition, it is to figure out what reparations should look like.

Harvard President Lawrence Bacow announced on April 26 that the university is committing $100 million to study its ties to slavery and create a "Legacy of Slavery Fund."Charles Krupa/Associated Press

Harvard University is publicly facing some brutally hard truths.

A massive report, years in the making, was released this week detailing the institution’s ties to and enrichment from the enslavement of Black people. It’s full of gut-wrenching details, from the more than 70 human beings who were owned by faculty, staff, and even presidents of the university, to the remains of 15 Black people from the antebellum era found among the holdings of Harvard’s Peabody Museum, to the fact that a third of the university’s endowment from the first half of the 19th century came from donors whose fortunes were fueled by the slave trade.


It also comes with a major pledge: a $100 million commitment to implement a set of recommendations designed, in the words of Harvard President Lawrence Bacow, “to approach the future in ways that properly reckon with our past.”

But if the recent efforts by other colleges and universities in the Ivy League and elsewhere to atone for the ways they benefited from human enslavement are any guide, the hard part for Harvard is just beginning. These schools are learning just how difficult, 150 years after abolition, it is to figure out what reparations should look like.

School officials at Georgetown University, Brown University, and other institutions who have also faced up to their institutions’ ties to enslavement have struggled mightily, not only to figure out exactly the right path to make amends for the past and ensure a more inclusive and equitable future, but also with who should be in the position to make those decisions.

Harvard’s quest began with a committee led by Tomiko Brown-Nagin, a Harvard law professor and dean of the Harvard Radcliffe Institute. The committee created the report, which proposed seven recommendations — including identifying and supporting the descendants of enslaved individuals — that were immediately accepted by Bacow.


As difficult as the subject matter of the report and its findings were, Brown-Nagin told me, it also presents an opportunity.

“It will bring us closer together as a community, and create deeper bonds among us,” Brown-Nagin said. “I do know, obviously there are some very difficult things in the report.”

But, she added, it’s also vital to note the immeasurable contributions Black and brown alumni have made to the university, Boston, and the world.

“It’s important to me — I’m a civil rights historian — to have that be a theme of the report, because it’s a way of truth-telling as well, and ensuring that a broader array of graduates and individuals and communities represent Harvard,” Brown-Nagin said.

One of the first tasks before Brown-Nagin and other Harvard officials is to identify the descendants of the more than 70 enslaved Black people who labored on the storied Cambridge campus and in the homes of Harvard’s past leaders. That task was easier for Georgetown University, which identified more than 8,000 known descendants of 272 human beings that the institution sold in 1838 to avoid bankruptcy. In Harvard’s case, some of the enslaved people were known only by first names, and records of what happened to them are harder to come by.

Still, Brown-Nagin underscored her commitment to finding out.

“It is already underway,” she said. “I can promise you that we expect to engage ethically and respectfully with these descendants.”


That engagement is crucially important, as is the need for respect. In the case of Georgetown, initial meetings soured between the American Jesuits, who founded and run the school, and a board representing the descendants of those who were sold, with the descendants left feeling dismissed and insulted. Some Jesuits expressed skepticism of the need for any reparations at all, according to a detailed Wall Street Journal report. The discussions also divided the descendants, some of whom continue to work with the university to implement a plan, and others who have broken off, hired attorneys, and are pursuing litigation against the school seeking cash damages.

Harvard, of course, can learn from Georgetown and other cases and avoid such potential landmines. The first way to avoid exacerbating an already complicated situation is by ensuring not only that descendants and members of descendant communities have a place at the table from the start, but also that members of the Greater Boston community, civil rights and equity advocates, and other stakeholders are included.

Harvard should not only seek a broad array of ideas for a plan about how to repay those whose ancestors’ unpaid and brutal contributions helped make Harvard the richest school in the world, but also acknowledge that that plan can, and very likely should, include payments to those whose families and communities suffered most — even if that means the total price tag exceeds $100 million.

Harvard officials have not said whether reparations might include direct payments.


“I can tell you that we are committed to remedies for descendant communities and those who are descendants, and we have to see what the process brings,” Brown-Nagin told me.

Harvard has an opportunity here to break the mold in seeking true, meaningful, and equitable solutions. Time will tell whether it is able to seize it.

Kimberly Atkins Stohr can be reached at kimberly.atkinsstohr @globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @KimberlyEAtkins.

Kimberly Atkins Stohr is a columnist for the Globe. She may be reached at kimberly.atkinsstohr@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @KimberlyEAtkins.