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.
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.”
“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.”