Bacow Announces Initiative to Study Harvard's Ties to Slavery

Massachusetts Hall houses the University president's office. Photo by Kai R. McNameeMassachusetts Hall houses the University president's office. Photo by Kai R. McNamee
November 21, 2019
By Alexandra A. Chaidez and Aidan F. Ryan, Crimson Staff Writers

University President Lawrence S. Bacow announced the creation of a University-wide initiative to address and further research the school’s ties to slavery in an email sent to Harvard affiliates Thursday.

Bacow selected Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study Dean Tomiko Brown-Nagin to be the head of a new University-wide faculty committee that will lead the initiative. The University has designated $5 million for the program, according to Bacow’s email.

“It is my hope that the work of this new initiative will help the university gain important insights about our past and the enduring legacy of slavery — while also providing an ongoing platform for our conversations about our present and our future as a university community committed to having our minds opened and improved by learning,” Bacow wrote.

Bacow wrote that the Radcliffe Institute will work closely with library and museum staff to host both programs and academic opportunities related to the issue.

“By engaging a wide array of interests and expertise, as Radcliffe is uniquely suited to do, this initiative will reflect the remarkable power of bringing together individuals from across Harvard in pursuit of a common purpose,” he wrote.

Other faculty on the 12-person committee include former Law School Dean Martha L. Minow and former Dean of the College Evelynn M. Hammonds.

Bacow’s announcement comes as the University continues to grapple with its ties to slavery. In March, Connecticut resident Tamara K. Lanier filed a lawsuit against Harvard alleging the University unlawfully owns and profits off photos of enslaved people who she says are her ancestors.

Earlier this month, the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda penned a letter to Bacow demanding reparations from Harvard for its historical ties to slavery.

In his letter, Bacow also wrote about efforts that former University President Drew G. Faust spearheaded several years ago like installing memorials commemorating enslaved individuals at Wadsworth House and Harvard Law School, and creating a faculty committee to study the University’s ties to slavery.

In February 2016, former Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael D. Smith announced that faculty leaders of the 12 undergraduate houses would be renamed “Faculty Deans” — a shift away from the former term “House Master,” which some students associated with slavery.

A month later, the Harvard Corporation — the University’s highest governing body — agreed to remove the Law School’s controversial seal, which featured the crest of a slaveholding family. The decision came after pieces of black tape were found over the portraits of black Law School professors in November 2015 and months of student protests.

The initiative announced Thursday will focus on researching further the connections Harvard has to the slave trade and to abolition movements, Bacow said in his email.

“Harvard has a unique role in the history of our country, and we have a distinct obligation to understand how our traditions and our culture here are shaped by our past and by our surroundings — from the ways the university benefitted from the Atlantic slave trade to the debates and advocacy for abolition on campus,” Bacow wrote.

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