Harvard pledges to spend $100 million to atone for slavery connection

BOSTON — Harvard University is pledging $100 million to study and redeem its vast ties to slavery, the school’s president announced Tuesday, with plans to identify and support the descendants of enslaved people who worked on the Ivy League campus.

President Lawrence Bacow announced the funding as Harvard released a new report detailing how the college benefited from slavery and the perpetuation of racial inequality. But the report makes no recommendations for direct financial restitution, and officials have no immediate plans to provide such support.

Harvard, the country’s oldest and richest college, is the latest among a growing number of American schools trying to confront their involvement in slavery and make amends.

A report commissioned by Bacow states that more than 70 blacks and Native Americans have been enslaved by Harvard faculty, staff, and leaders since the school’s founding in 1636–1783. It warns that the figure is “almost certainly an underestimate.” Using historical records, the researchers were able to identify dozens of enslaved people by name, as well as their connection to the university.

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Most of them have been identified by only one name, such as Caesar, Dinah and Venus.

“Enslaved men and women served Harvard presidents and professors and fed and cared for Harvard students,” the researchers found. “Moreover, throughout this period and well into the 19th century, the university and its sponsors benefited from extensive financial ties to slavery.”

The report states that the university “should make significant monetary commitments, and it should invest in remedies of equal or greater breadth than other universities.” Bacow said that Harvard would try to correct its mistakes through “teaching, research and service.” It creates a committee to implement the proposals of the report.

Drawing on earlier Harvard research, the report details how the university depended on the slave trade in its early years and profited from it for decades.

Harvard invested directly in the Caribbean sugar and rum trade and in the US cotton and railroad industries. The college’s early growth is attributed to the support of wealthy donors who amassed their wealth through the slave trade and the industries that relied on it.

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Along with the 70 people who were enslaved, the report also lists their enslavers, including several Harvard presidents and senior officials, as well as campus buildings, rooms, and professorships that are still named after them.

Even after the abolition of slavery, prominent scientists continued to promote concepts that fueled racist ideas, the report said.

He cites the work of the 19th century professor Louis Agassiz, who promoted the discredited theories of “race science” and eugenics. Another scientist ran a “physical education” program that collected students’ physical measurements to support research that promoted eugenic theories.

In his post, Bacow called the findings “alarming and shocking” and acknowledged that the school was “perpetuating a practice that was deeply immoral.”

“Therefore, I believe that we have a moral responsibility to do everything we can to address the persistently destructive effects of these historical practices on individuals, on Harvard, and on our society,” he wrote.

The 130-page report included a series of recommendations that Bacow approved. $100 million will be used to complete the works, with some of the funding being provided now and the majority being kept in donations. The university itself has over $50 billion in endowments, the largest in the country.

The report said that Harvard should identify and engage with the descendants of enslaved people “through dialogue, programming, information sharing, relationship building and educational support.”

“Through such efforts, these descendants are able to reconstruct their history, tell their stories and gain new knowledge,” the report says.

More broadly, he calls on Harvard to tackle racial inequality by expanding educational opportunities for the descendants of enslaved people, especially in the South and the Caribbean. He urges the university to work closely with historically black colleges across the country with new funding to attract students and scholars to Harvard for up to a year.

And while acknowledging the enslavement of Native Americans, he calls on Harvard to forge closer ties with New England tribes. The report says that Harvard should recruit more students from tribal communities and organize a national conference promoting research into the enslavement of indigenous peoples.

By accepting recommendations, Harvard joins a growing number of colleges trying to move from research to action as they come to terms with their history.

Georgetown University in 2019 pledged to raise $400,000 a year for the descendants of enslaved people sold by the school. Princeton Theological Seminary has set up a $27.6 million reparation fund. The University of Virginia established scholarships for the descendants of enslaved people.

Harvard officially began investigating its links to slavery in 2016, when former president Drew Gilpin Faust admitted that the school was “directly implicated in the American system of racial slavery.” Faust organized a committee to study the topic and erected a plaque on campus to honor the enslaved people who worked there.

Student activists have shed light on Harvard’s dark history for years. In 2015, students demanded that Harvard Law School drop its official coat of arms, which was tied to an 18th-century donor whose family enslaved dozens of people. A few months later, the school abandoned the symbol.

Shortly after he became president, Bacow established a new presidential initiative on Harvard and the legacy of slavery to further explore the university’s role. These efforts have resulted in a new report.

“The Harvard I knew, though far from perfect, always tried to be better—to bring our experience closer to our high ideals,” Bacow wrote. “By issuing this report and committing to follow its recommendations, we are continuing a long tradition of meeting the challenges we face.”

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