As dozens of states have passed bills making it illegal for public schools to teach, teach, or discuss the deep history of slavery and racial injustice in America, the Harvard Report stands out as a breath of fresh air in a vast ocean of bigotry, fear, and lies.
These latter sites are important—both acknowledging the origins of the profits made by white elites at Harvard (and elsewhere), extracted from the lives and work of blacks who were then identified as a type of property. A portion of the endowment will be used to aid tribal colleges and trace the dynasty of more than 70 enslaved blacks owned by slave traders who had deep and intimate ties to Harvard’s former presidents, clergy and politicians.
The remedies proposed from the Promised Endowment, when implemented, would arrive too late for some of the descendants of enslaved blacks at Harvard who lived and worked in Boston—many unaware of their connection to the era when this venerable institution fattened its coffers with the wealth created from the wreckage of oppressed blacks.
Despite the importance and pioneeringness of the Brown Report and subsequent investigations, Harvard is arguably more meaningful in 2022 because of the institution’s global impact and the critical timing of this report’s release.
Attacks on the teachings of hateful parts of American history, or in some cases mentioning them at all, are growing in scope and momentum as this election year rages on. Many of these attacks are rooted in conservative concern and intent to demonize “Project 1619” for the New York Times, a multimedia investigation into slavery and democracy edited by journalist Nicole Hannah Jones.
Derek Bell, one of the founders of critical race theory as a teacher of academic legal analysis, and the first permanent black professor of law at Harvard Law School, died in 2011. But if he was here, he probably wouldn’t be surprised in the way conservatives have demonized the CRT as a political tool to deny blacks their citizenship and dignity.
The Harvard Report then comes at a pivotal moment in American history, as the nation appears poised to either erase or bring back some of the bleakest parts of its past or move forward by taking bold steps to build a new world by sharing a new story about ourselves.
Instructively, the report documents the historical links—intellectual, financial, and direct—between Harvard University and slavery as an institution that created profit and leisure, added personal value and provided direct benefits to generations of Harvard students, faculty, staff, alumni, trustees and associates without ever acknowledging or contributing to black pain and suffering. The invaluable given by African Americans to the university.
This is heavy stuff.
The most exciting parts of the report, the ones that made me cry, come to the end. Annex I lists the more than 70 humans who were enslaved by Harvard University presidents, colleagues, supervisors, faculty, staff, and key donors. The pain I felt reading these names and parts of their stories was amplified as I thought about the gaps in the narrative, and the information we don’t have about them. I agonized over this knowledge, even as I understood that it would cause me (and others) more pain.
The biographical parts surrounding the enslaved woman Dina, who worked in the extended home of Harvard President Edward Holyoke during the 18th century, are particularly heart-wrenching. Her initial entry to this date was by recording her weight as a 51-pound baby. Twelve years later, she re-emerged as a domestic worker cleaning one of the Holyoke clan’s family homes. Dinah’s ultimate fate remains unclear, she may have left her position in slavery with the end of slavery in Massachusetts in 1780, but a more definitive answer remains elusive.
Nonetheless, a tireless optimist in me sees this report as an opportunity to obtain a deliberate, mature, and necessary push toward national reparations for racial slavery. The frankness of the Harvard Report, the foundation’s pledge of a $100 million grant to fix the wrongs of the past, and the care of committee members and President Baku in getting this right show as a model for more thoughtful, active, and influential confrontations to the legacy of slavery in other parts of the country. our country.
I hope every school teacher in America takes the time to read the report and share it with at least one student and friend. Parents, school boards, churches, synagogues and mosques should do the same.
Harvard, in its own small but significant way, by its willingness to confront the most inappropriate and inappropriate parts of its past, has taken meaningful steps toward the path to recovery. We can only build a new story for America–our past, present, and future–by confronting how we got to this moment together.