"A Vast Slave Society"

Photo by Tony RinaldoPhoto by Tony Rinaldo
Harvard Magazine
March 6, 2017
By Lydialyle Gibson

Throughout last Friday’s daylong conference at the Radcliffe Institute on slavery and its historical ties to Harvard and other universities, the conversation kept coming back to something that writer Ta-Nehisi Coates had said during the morning’s keynote address. “We talk about enslavement as if it were a bump in the road. And I tell people: it’s the road. It’s the actual road.”

Coates was talking about slavery’s colossal formative influence on American history, from the founding to the present; but universities, too, have been finding out in recent years just how deep their own roots are sunk into, as Harvard historian Sven Beckert phrased it Friday, “the violence of the slave trader, the Middle Passage, the auction block, and the whip.” Researchers at Yale, Princeton, Brown, William & Mary, the University of Virginia, Rutgers, Georgetown—and Harvard—as well as other schools, have uncovered sometimes extensive historical connections to slavery: slave owners among the faculty and administration; significant gifts from slave-owning donors; endowment money and investments in the slave trade; campuses built and subsidized in part by slave labor. University scholars authored many of the racist scientific theories that legitimized slavery’s existence. One reminder of that scholarship on Friday was the shirtless man staring out from the conference program. Radcliffe dean Lizabeth Cohen explained that his name was Renty, a Congolese-born slave whose daguerreotype image was taken in 1850 on a South Carolina plantation and commissioned by Harvard professor Louis Agassiz. A biologist and geologist and a student of Earth’s history, Agassiz developed the theory of polygenesis, which denied the existence of a common human ancestor and held that blacks were inferior to whites. The Renty daguerreotype, along with others from Agassiz’s tour of Southern plantations, was lost for decades, until archivists at the Peabody Museum rediscovered it in 1976. 

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