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Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery

A view of Harvard College with what is now Massachusetts Avenue in foreground, and college buildings including Massachusetts Hall with the inscription: caption: A Prospect of the Colledges in Cambridge in New England
View of Harvard College, including Massachusetts Hall, ca. 1726.

The Presidential Initiative on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery, announced by Harvard President Larry Bacow in November of 2019 and anchored at Harvard Radcliffe Institute, is an effort to understand and address the enduring legacy of slavery within our University community.

It is guided by a faculty committee and chaired by Radcliffe Dean Tomiko Brown-Nagin, who is also the Daniel P.S. Paul Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School and a professor of history in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Portrait of Tomiko Brown-Nagin

Welcome, and a Call to Action

Dean Tomiko Brown-Nagin: “We cannot dismantle what we do not understand, and we cannot understand the contemporary injustice we face unless we reckon honestly with our history.”

Read more from Dean Brown-Nagin


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Key Areas of Inquiry

Four subcommittees, each chaired by members of the Presidential Committee on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery, drive the initiative’s efforts in key areas, including contemporary campus life and community partnerships; curriculum; links to Antigua and other Caribbean nations; and the history of race, medicine, and the sciences.

Campus and community, led by Stephen Gray, Tiya Miles, and Dan Smith, is focused on engaging our community—on campus and off—in a number of meaningful ways, including a virtual walking tour and digital maps that explore the history of enslavement on and around campus. The subcommittee also launched a study, led by Professor Anthony A. Jack and developed with committee member William Julius Wilson, which is examining the contemporary experiences at Harvard of African American students descended from enslaved people as they cope with the confluence of a racial reckoning, public health crisis, and economic distress.

Curriculum, led by Meira Levinson and Martha Minow, is surveying what courses already exist at Harvard and identifying new ways to support student engagement with legacies of slavery through new content development, courses, orientation, and more.

Antigua and the Caribbean, led by Sven Beckert and Annette Gordon-Reed, is examining Harvard’s connections to sugar plantations in the Caribbean and exploring opportunities to engage stakeholders—including university students and faculty—in Antigua and other Caribbean nations with historic Harvard links.

Medical education and experimentation, led by Paul Farmer and Evelynn Hammonds, is considering legacies of slavery in the sciences and examining Harvard museum collections connected to slavery in order to consider how best to reckon with problematic artifacts.

Watch Videos from Past Events

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Fund Your Research

Harvard students and faculty are encouraged to apply for small grants to support research and creative work related to the topic of Harvard and the legacy of slavery, broadly defined. Projects may (but need not) be connected to courses, and we welcome a wide range of submissions including works of art, multimedia projects, and other creative endeavors as well as traditional research undertakings.

Related Reading

Johnston Gate at Harvard University

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