Harvard commits $100 million to atone for its role in slavery

A university commission detailed the institution's deep ties to slavery and discrimination.

Harvard University will spend $100 million to redress the elite institution’s legacy with slavery through a wide range of academic, research and service initiatives.

The commitment, announced Tuesday by President Lawrence S. Bacow, comes after a report by a university commission detailed the institution’s deep ties to slavery and discrimination before and after the Civil War. “Harvard’s history includes extensive entanglements with slavery,” Bacow said in the announcement. “The report makes plain that slavery in America was by no means confined to the South. It was embedded in the fabric and the institutions of the North.”

The study describes how enslaved people worked on Harvard’s campus to support students, faculty, and several university presidents. Slave labor also enriched many of Harvard’s donors while the work of some faculty members “gave scholarly legitimacy to concepts of racial superiority.” And discriminatory practices “sharply limited the presence of African Americans on our campus” long after slavery was abolished in 1865, Bacow said.

“Our recent progress must not obscure the reality of our past—or the continuing effects of the past on the present,” Bacow continued. “The legacy of slavery, including the persistence of both overt and subtle discrimination against people of color, continues to influence the world in the form of disparities in education, health, wealth, income, social mobility, and almost any other metric we might use to measure equality.”

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Several other institutions have made similar commitments. In 2006, Brown University was a forerunner in publishing its first Slavery and Justice Report detailing the school’s role in slavery. In 2020 and 2021, first-year Brown students read a teaching version of the report as part of the University’s First Readings program. Since 2006, more than 80 other U.S.  colleges and universities have launched similar research and reparation efforts, according to Brown University. Brown’s work has also spawned the Universities Studying Slavery coalition launched by the University of Virginia.

In 2021, a charitable fund to focus on racial healing and educational advancement was established by Georgetown University, the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, and the descendants of 272 slaves sold in 1838 by the Maryland Province of Jesuits.

Seven solutions

Back at Harvard, the slavery report includes several recommendations to shape the university’s reparation efforts:

  1. Support descendant communities by ensuring historically marginalized students have access to world-class learning opportunities at Harvard and elsewhere.
  2. Honor enslaved people who helped build the university through a “permanent and imposing” physical memorial” and convening space. Invest in studies and other scholarship that seek to analyze and promote solutions to persistent racial inequities.
  3. Develop stronger partnerships with historically Black colleges and universities.
  4. Acknowledge direct descendants of the enslaved individuals who worked on campus through a university remembrance program.
  5. Honor, engage and support Native American communities whose ancestors were also sold as slaves by Harvard leaders and staff.
  6. Establish an Endowed Legacy of Slavery Fund to support the university’s reparative efforts.
  7. Ensure institutional accountability by establishing a commitment to track the university’s progress.
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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