Legacies of Slavery: From the Institutional to the Personal
Tasked with uncovering entanglements with slavery at their respective institutions, two leaders reckon with the past and explore ideas for future projects.
Amid the uncertainty of COVID-19 and protests against the indefensible loss of Black lives at the hands of police, Tomiko Brown-Nagin, dean of Harvard Radcliffe Institute, and Martha S. Jones, a professor of history at Johns Hopkins University, were each hard at work uncovering and bringing to light their respective universities’ entanglements with slavery.
On February 16, 2023, during the annual Harvard Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging Forum, the two noted scholars came together for a discussion—moderated by Sherri Ann Charleston, Harvard’s first chief diversity and inclusion officer—on their experiences and how the difficult work of coming to terms with a dark past has helped to reshape their respective institutions and their own future projects.
An Unflinching Look at the Past
In accepting President Lawrence S. Bacow’s invitation to chair the Presidential Initiative on Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery, Brown-Nagin recognized the gravity of the task before her. “There were questions about having such influence over Harvard’s image and reputation. It’s known as a place of excellence,” she said. “And whatever it is that people are conjuring when they [initially] think about Harvard, I can guarantee you it’s not entanglements with slavery.”
Jones faced similar challenges. She recognized early on that in order for institutions like Harvard and Johns Hopkins to meaningfully address these legacies and “to do it in a way that is consistent not only with the institution's values, but with its strengths, means that all of that public work that the institution has to do has to be undergirded by people like us,” she said. Those “who come not only with expertise in how to work the archives and interpret them but, frankly, with reputations that permit the kinds of conclusions we arrive at to persuade, to stand up to scrutiny, to criticism, to fear, and more.”
In other words, it was not just the legacies and reputations of two of the nation’s most prestigious universities that were at stake. The reputations of these two eminent scholars—lawyers and historians, both women of color—were also on the line.
“In some ways, it was a role that I had been preparing for all of my life as I’ve been dealing with these issues, grappling with and asking the questions in various forms, from a very young age,” said Brown-Nagin. “And it was quite something to have as a part of one's intellectual and professional legacy, helping this institution come to terms with itself—this very important institution.”
“One of the things I knew I could do was to help us write new stories about our past,” said Jones, stories that would “explain the important ways we get to be who we are, both for our strengths and our ongoing challenges, and permit us to become a 21st century institution in the best sense—one that no longer has to flinch or avoid or worry that someone is going to reveal.”
More Meaningful Engagement
Jones said that when Johns Hopkins began exploring its legacy of slavery, she was struck by how the institution, home of the nation’s oldest history PhD program, was just discovering its founder’s ties to slavery. How, Jones wondered, had it gotten its own history so wrong?
“So, my project of Hard Histories at Hopkins has really been to examine the stories we tell about ourselves, the myths that we have invented about the institution, and how it's come to be [what] it is—and the silences that are very much a part of that record,” she concluded.
Brown-Nagin and Jones both emphasized how important it was to collaborate across their universities on these projects. Student participation was also invaluable in terms of both the support it provided and how it laid a foundation on which to create a “legacy of students who are engaged in deep research and understand the value of it and the impact that they can have as scholars,” said Brown-Nagin.
“It was teamwork in a way that I had never experienced at Harvard, or frankly, anyplace else,” she added. “It was challenging, of course, but out of challenging experiences, one can find community and establish bonds, and that’s what happened.”
Reckoning with the past plays a vital role in understanding the present and shaping the future by bringing to light the enduring effects of racial divisions, disparities, and discrimination, Brown-Nagin observed.
“The color line continues to be such an important organizing principle. And as we reckon with this history, I hope it leads us to have a better understanding of how we personally—and how we as institutional actors—should engage with the relics of the past,” she said. “I think these histories should have an impact on how we proceed as an institution, what our policies are, what our practices are, how we conceive of our responsibilities to our communities here in greater Boston, across the country, including the American South—which was specifically referenced in the recommendations—and around the world.”
“Writing about Their Own Kin”
Both scholars spoke about how their very public work on universities and slavery has informed a new chapter in their scholarship: family memoirs that explore personal legacies of slavery. Evoking the legendary Black author, James Baldwin, Brown-Nagin observed that in a way, we are all agents of history, and working on Harvard’s legacy of slavery led her to consider how her own family history reflects slavery’s lingering impact on families and communities.
Jones’s grandmother’s grandmother, Susan, was enslaved in the mid-19th century by the president of Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, with whom the family shares a “troubled sort of kinship,” Jones has explained, since “the enslaved women in Susan's family had born children out of compulsion rather than choice.” Jones’s great-grandmother, Susan’s daughter, later organized Black women to register to vote in 1920 as a suffragist in St. Louis, Missouri.
“[This work] has emboldened me to recognize that it is time to tell a version of my own story. How did we get here? And it is not, as Tomiko said, a story that is easily understood by way of the historiography and the great threads that we necessarily, as historians, develop to explain the American past,” Jones said. “In my case, I wanted to tell a story partly about skin; about why I look the way I do, and what that means for me; about what it means for us collectively as Americans in a historical sense. So, I am part of a burgeoning community of historians who are now writing about their own kin.”
Brown-Nagin spoke of her great-great-grandfather, known as “The Professor,” a community leader who founded a school for people of color in South Carolina that was ultimately burned down by whites. Born to an enslaved woman and an enslaver, he amassed hundreds of acres of land, including land where former plantations had stood, all of which was ultimately taken from the family. These incidents forced his sons to flee north in search of greater opportunity.
Telling the story “is a way of challenging [dominant] narratives that we hear about why society is the way it is,” Brown-Nagin said. Commentors cite all manner of explanations for racial disparities, many of which denigrate communities of color. But this story shows: “It’s not a lack of ambition. It’s not that the people didn’t value education.” Her great grandfather “valued education very much”—so much so that he used “his own money to establish schools at a time when the state did not provide.” The family history is “a way of telling a story from a point, frankly, of influence and privilege, relative privilege, that I think calls us to recognize … the ways in which the legacy of slavery and segregation are reflected in the world today.”