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Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery

Sepia toned paper, record of purchase by Andrew Bordman from the widow Martha Daille of a “Negro man slave named Cuffe”
Record of purchase by Andrew Bordman from the widow Martha Daille of a “Negro man slave named Cuffe” for the sum of forty pounds. The Bordman family had extensive connections to Harvard. Andrew Bordman II (1670-1747) was Harvard steward from 1703 to 1747, responsible for overseeing residential operations, purchasing supplies, and managing staff. His son, Andrew Bordman III (1701-1769)—who graduated from the College in 1719—also served as Harvard steward for the three years after his father served.

The presidential initiative on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery is a University-wide effort anchored at the Radcliffe Institute and guided by a faculty committee drawn from every Harvard school.

Message from Dean Tomiko Brown-Nagin, chair, Presidential Committee on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery

In the winter of 2019–2020, President Lawrence Bacow committed Harvard to examining the University’s significant connections to slavery and its legacies through research, engagement, and programming, and he charged a newly formed faculty committee with issuing a public report of historical findings and recommendations for further action. That report is scheduled for release in the winter of 2021–2022, and its publication will mark a beginning rather than an end. This work is challenging and it will take time, but it is critically important. We cannot dismantle what we do not understand, and we cannot understand the contemporary injustice we face unless we reckon honestly with our history. 

“We cannot dismantle what we do not understand, and we cannot understand the contemporary injustice we face unless we reckon honestly with our history.”

Today, we find ourselves in the midst of a unique and difficult historical moment, one that has laid bare centuries of systemic racism, profound injustice, and chronic inaction. My own hope for a more just country—one that lives up to its promise of freedom and equality, regardless of race—rests on our capacity as individuals and as a society to engage thoughtfully and fearlessly with the questions confronting our nation. This means examining our past as well as our present. And this is precisely the task before us.

Here at the Radcliffe Institute and across Harvard, as we investigate, document, and openly discuss the University’s connections to slavery, we must also engage our community in the work of understanding and remedying the legacies that continue to shadow our society. I call on you to join us in pursuing this vital work.

In the 18th century, the Royall House was home to the largest slaveholding family in Massachusetts. It was a bequest from Isaac Royall Jr. that funded the establishment of Harvard Law School in 1817. In 2016, the Harvard Corporation approved the removal of the Law School’s shield, which was derived directly from the Royall coat of arms. Harvard Fine Arts Library Special Collections

Video highlights

We encourage you to explore the wide range of Harvard Radcliffe Institute programs that examine topics related to the legacy of slavery. Here we offer some short excerpts from recent events that touch on current public health issues that reflect the long history of structural racism in the United States.

White supremacy and the practice of public health

What the numbers tell us about health disparities for Black Americans

Black Health and the Empathy Gap featuring David R. Williams

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