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Harvard Must Acknowledge and Address Its History

By Kai R. McNamee
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

Last month, University President Lawrence S. Bacow announced a new $5 million initiative to continue investigating Harvard’s ties to slavery. The program, headed by a committee led by Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study Dean Tomiko Brown-Nagin, proposes to specifically research Harvard’s relationship to the slave trade and abolition movements, working in close coordination with the University’s museum and library systems.

In light of past events that highlighted Harvard’s history with slavery such as the case demanding that Harvard returns daguerreotypes of slaves to a woman who says they depict ancestor case, the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda’s call for reparations from the University, Bacow’s inappropriate comment referencing the 13th Amendment, and the controversy over Harvard Law School’s former seal, we believe that a programmatic understanding and acknowledgment of its ties to slavery is long past due. We hope that this committee does more than simply rehash the extensive research that has been done by others in the past, such as the History Department’s course on slavery at Harvard, Pusey Library’s exhibit on slavery, or Radcliffe’s conference addressing the historical role of slavery at universities more broadly.

Rather, we urge the committee to use the large sum of money it has been endowed with to provide more actionable ways of addressing this issue to campus currently, and in grappling with the enduring legacy of slavery that continues to affect students and other Harvard affiliates today. It is easy for research to be confined within academia and technical dialogues, but we believe that Harvard must do more.

It’s convenient that this comes at a time when the University has received a growing amount of flack in regard to its outward-facing relationship with slavery. We accept that committees play an important role in structural, institutional changes by providing a knowledge basis on a given area as a first step to more systemic measures. But this faculty committee must not stall at this first step. We hope that this action inspires meaningful, systemic change, and is more than just buffing Harvard’s reputation or another line of the committee members’ CVs.

In recognizing the enduring impact of slavery on the University and its affiliates, Harvard needs to provide actionable steps toward addressing the wrongdoings of the past and the ways in which the University continues to benefit from that historical legacy. Founded in 1636, Harvard’s beginnings are directly tied to approximately 150 years of slavery in the United States. Many early donations to the University originated in the slave economy; enslaved people worked on Harvard’s campus for professors and students; Harvard scholars promoting ideas of scientific racism, such as Louis Agassiz, helped further legitimize slavery in the United States more broadly.

In addressing the effect of these histories, Harvard must start by acknowledging the role slavery played in building the University into the world-renowned institution it is today. This issue parallels a lot of currently ongoing conversations about reparations and Universities, such as the creation of reparations funds by Princeton Theological Seminary and Virginia Theological Seminary. Harvard should consider the different forms that such reparative action can take. Some schools have opted to take the reparations route, but Harvard can take another. Regardless, we hope that the committee will not only devote itself to scholastic efforts but also seriously consider actionable steps that not only acknowledge but address its longstanding history with one of the most disgraceful chapters in our history. Reparations is but one potential course in pursuit of that broader goal.

Ultimately, while we are hopeful at the prospect of this new committee, we cannot help but note its creation in the wake of the many recent incidents involving the University and its history with slavery. This is unacceptable at an institution which so often stands behind its motto of “veritas” and truth-seeking. In the future, we expect Harvard to lead rather than respond to backlash.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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