A two-mile drive separates Roberta Wolff from 200 years of family history. On one end, her childhood apartment in Roxbury. On the other, a house near Harvard University where her ancestor Cuba Vassall was once enslaved.
For the past seven years, Wolff has spent her evenings building an Ancestry.com tree, hoping to find lost relatives. When Jim Shea, a historian at the Longfellow House-Washington National Historic Site’s headquarters, contacted Wolff about her tree, she was shocked — she did not know her ancestor was enslaved. She had never learned that slaves existed in Boston.
Roberta and I first met when I began searching for descendants of enslaved people connected to my university, Harvard. The Royall family, whose fortune founded Harvard Law, enslaved Roberta’s ancestor Cuba. This week, the university released a report detailing its connections to slavery; it stated, “Harvard presidents and other leaders, as well as its faculty and staff, enslaved more than 70 individuals, some of whom labored on campus.” According to my research, Harvard profited from at least 121 slaves. The discrepancy is what Harvard classified as being “Harvard enslaved.” I count the enslaved people photographed in the daguerreotypes of Harvard zoologist Louis Agassiz and the enslaved people who were held by Isaac Royall Jr. in Massachusetts. Each of the enslaved people has about 50,000 living descendants today, though there may be overlap due to intermarriage. American universities that profited from slavery should hire historians to find more. They owe debts of personal history.
Roberta’s niece, Jordan Lloyd, worked as a waitress in her 20s at Harvard’s American Repertory Theater. Last summer, I reached out to her via e-mail. When she learned that her ancestors were once enslaved on the same road where she served cocktails to patrons, she began to cry. She often walked past the plaque memorializing the enslaved people Harvard Law profited from, unaware of her own past.
On Friday, Harvard will host a conference asking what universities owe. Enslaved people slept in Harvard dorm rooms. University presidents, overseers, faculty, and students enslaved Indigenous and African people. In the 19th century, over one-third of Harvard’s private donations came from family fortunes built from the slave trade. Leading Harvard faculty members promoted eugenics and theories that supported white supremacy. In a Harvard museum, the cast of a South African boy who committed suicide after being exhibited as a “Wild African Savage” remains in the archives.
When the descendants of the enslaved learned of Harvard’s commitment to create a $100 million fund for reparations, they told me they felt like part of a larger history. For the first time, the descendants will have the chance to be a part of discussions on reparations.
In my research, I found another forgotten legacy — a Harvard alumnus’s role in public school segregation, a history that continues to affect the descendants’ kids and grandkids today.
Cuba’s son and grandson dedicated their lives to improving education for Black children. In 1850, they hoped the courts would integrate classrooms in Roberts vs. City of Boston. Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Justice Lemuel Shaw, a Harvard College graduate and then a Harvard overseer and fellow, wrote the majority opinion. His argument — that Boston schools could be separated into different castes without violating equal rights — set the first school segregation precedent in America and inspired the US Supreme Court’s “separate but equal” doctrine in Plessy vs. Ferguson.
Shaw justified segregation because schools in Boston could admit different students based on the “qualifications of the scholars.” In doing so, Shaw subtly referred to his university, Harvard, and Boston’s elite public schools. In the 1800s, Harvard quintupled its endowment. By 1850, half of the university’s private donations came from businessmen who profited from the slave trade. Historian Ronald Story notes how Harvard’s decision to favor admission to wealthier students created a special caste of secondary schools like the public Boston Latin School.
Centuries later, public schools in Boston remain implicitly segregated: 77 percent of Black children attend schools where more than 90 percent of students are of color. Roberta’s niece, Stacy Wolff, taught pre-K at a Roxbury public school. When she visited a wealthier early-learning school, she told me she was surprised to see toys and dollhouses in classrooms. “I’d never seen anything like that before,” Stacy Wolff said. On the playground at her school, Stacy recalled having to rush kids back into the classroom whenever shootings occurred.
Descendants told me that learning about this history felt deeply personal. Two of the family members, Dennis and Egypt Lloyd, created the Slave Legacy History Coalition to encourage more research on slavery in Boston. They will lead an event at the Boston Public Library this month on their ancestors’ lives.
Last year, Roberta, Dennis, and other descendants of enslaved people visited Harvard Square. They searched for their ancestors in the graveyard in Cambridge Common, where soft slabs of mud swallowed the soles of their shoes. In the basement of nearby Christ Church, among cobwebs and abandoned files, the family found a mound with a paper framed before it: “When finally sealed in 1865, the tomb contained ten coffins . . . [including] Darby.”
Every day, countless Harvard students and faculty members walk over the ground where Cuba’s son Darby is buried.
At the university’s conference reckoning with its legacy of slavery, Jordan hopes to hear Harvard finally acknowledge past injustices. But, she also hopes to hear Harvard talk about the future. “Slavery changed the lives of my ancestors,” Jordan says, “but I hope reparations can change the lives of my kids and grandkids.”
Carissa Chen is a Harvard College graduate currently pursuing a master’s degree under the Rhodes Scholarship.