Bound by History: Universities and Slavery

Around the Institute Special Commentary
Ta-Nehisi Coates delivers the keynote speech. Photo by Tony RinaldoTa-Nehisi Coates delivers the keynote speech. Photo by Tony Rinaldo
By Renee Graham

Renty. Say his name.

In all likelihood that wasn’t his true name, not the one he was given at birth and may have whispered to himself each night to keep it alive. If not for Louis Agassiz, a renowned Harvard professor and scientist, no one would know what little is known about this man who was kidnapped from Africa and sold into slavery in the first half of the 19th century.

Yet Harvard takes no pride in Agassiz’s association with Renty. Once hailed, it is now a source of shame for the University that speaks to the unholy alliance that thrived for centuries between two distinct and disparate American institutions—higher education and slavery.

It was appropriate, then, that Renty’s stark daguerreotype was projected on a screen above the stage for “Universities and Slavery: Bound by History,” a daylong conference hosted in March by the Radcliffe Institute. Ta-Nehisi Coates, award-winning author and national correspondent for the Atlantic, delivered the keynote address.

Sparked more than a decade ago at Brown University, this long-overdue conversation now encompasses many of the world’s most prominent schools, including Harvard, forcing these institutions to acknowledge the darkest corners of their history in hopes of forging an inclusive and honest path forward.

“Harvard was directly complicit in slavery from the College’s earliest days, in the 17th century, until the system of bondage ended in Massachusetts, in 1783,” Harvard’s President Drew Gilpin Faust said. At the University were slave-owning presidents, professors, and graduates, including Cotton Mather and John Hancock. Last April, a plaque was placed at Wadsworth House in memory of four enslaved persons—Titus, Venus, Juba, and Bilhah—who worked there, in the households of two Harvard presidents, in the 18th century. Faust called it “one milestone in a broader exploration of an aspect of Harvard’s past that’s been rarely acknowledged and poorly understood.”

Even after Massachusetts abolished slavery, “through financial and other ties with the slave South, Harvard continued to be involved with slavery up until the time of Emancipation,” Faust said. The University received donations from men who made their fortunes in the slave-based economies of cotton and sugar.

Examining such thorny questions fits the Radcliffe Institute’s mission to “foster interdisciplinary inquiry into important subjects,” said Lizabeth Cohen, the Institute’s dean, in her opening remarks at the conference. “No one academic field can answer such complex and troubling questions, which is why we felt that the Radcliffe Institute would provide an ideal venue for historians, civic leaders, artists, and many others to delve together into the fraught relationship between universities and slavery.”

Ivy League schools connected to slavery have garnered the most headlines. Yet as Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, the Victor S. Thomas Professor of History and of African and African American Studies at Harvard, who moderated the panel “Slavery and Universities Nationally,” pointed out, “Research has revealed many universities, southern and northern, private and public, to have histories tied to slavery.” Slaves worked on campuses and were owned by universities, which bought and sold them and collected profits from their labor and the Atlantic slave trade. For more than 200 years, colleges and universities were active participants in the business of slavery.

“This history, and its legacy,” Faust said, “has shaped our institution in ways we have yet to fully understand.”

This daguerreotype--taken in March 1850 by J.T. Zealy for Louis Agassiz's study of races--is a rare portrait of a slave before emancipation. It shows Renty, a Congo-born man who was enslaved at a plantation in Columbia, South Carolina. Courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, PM# 35-5-10/53038This daguerreotype--taken in March 1850 by J.T. Zealy for Louis Agassiz's study of races--is a rare portrait of a slave before emancipation. It shows Renty, a Congo-born man who was enslaved at a plantation in Columbia, South Carolina. Courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, PM# 35-5-10/53038


Worldwide, institutions have generally avoided even recognizing their culpability, much less understanding its present-day repercussions. We have long accepted a kind of national amnesia regarding all but the most basic facts about slavery, consigning it to southern states and ignoring the fact that it was the financial engine that made this nation the richest in the world. Our most honored and revered organizations prospered because of it.

“When you begin to understand this as a business, when you begin to put numbers on it, the United States was not a country with a little bit of slavery, but actually a slave society,” Coates said. “When you wrap your head around that and what that meant, that begins to make connections to where you are now, especially when you can analyze all the attendant effects. I tell people all the time that we talk about enslavement as though it was a bump in the road, and I tell people it’s the road—it’s the actual road.”

For some, it is a road best left untraveled.

During her rousing speech at last summer’s Democratic National Convention, First Lady Michelle Obama JD ’88 saluted “the generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.” The next day, some on social media and in conservative circles expressed their anger at that reference; yet it apparently arose less because the White House was built by people forced into dire lives of subjugation than because Obama had the audacity to mention it at all.

James Baldwin, who always recognized this nation’s reluctance to shoulder the terrible weight of its history, said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

Change began in earnest at Brown when Ruth J. Simmons AM ’71, PhD ’73 became the first African American president of an Ivy League university. The Rhode Island campus was thrown into turmoil after a provocative paid advertisement from the conservative columnist David Horowitz, headed “Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery is [sic] a Bad Idea and Racist Too,” ran in the campus newspaper. In 2003, Simmons announced the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice to investigate the school’s historical relationship to slavery and the transatlantic slave trade and to publish its findings.

Now a Stanford history professor, James T. Campbell was teaching at Brown when Simmons sought to excavate the school’s involvement with slavery. He called it an “act of transcendent courage,” adding that “when she did this, she was all alone. And with respect to all the other institutions engaged in this work now, there wasn’t a single peep from another university even suggesting this was an act worthy of the university. People just kind of waited to see.”

Craig Steven Wilder, an MIT history professor and the author of Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities (Bloomsbury Press, 2013), confirmed that other schools were initially reluctant to follow Simmons’s lead.

“One of the things that I suspect a lot of people were worried about when these conversations started was that the studying of and publishing of the history of these institutions’ relationship to slavery would somehow tarnish our gates,” he said. “In fact, what happened is it opened them.”

In 2006, Brown issued the steering committee’s report. Two of its recommendations led to the school’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice and to a campus memorial recognizing the university’s connection to the transatlantic slave trade and remembering those in forced servitude who helped build Brown, Rhode Island, and this nation. Other institutions also scrutinized their pasts and sought to make amends. In 2007, Sven Beckert, the Laird Bell Professor of History at Harvard, launched a student research seminar on the University’s history of slavery. At the University of Missouri, a descendant of James Rollins, the school’s slave-owning founding father, established the James S. Rollins Slavery Atonement Endowment in support of that university’s Black Studies Department.

This detail of a daguerreotype of Delia, the American-born daughter of the slave Renty, is part of the Agassiz race series. The full image--also taken in Columbia, South Carolina, in March 1850--shows Delia stripped to the waist. Courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, PM# 35-5-10/53040This detail of a daguerreotype of Delia, the American-born daughter of the slave Renty, is part of the Agassiz race series. The full image--also taken in Columbia, South Carolina, in March 1850--shows Delia stripped to the waist. Courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, PM# 35-5-10/53040


After a long silence, universities were slowly and painfully exposing their difficult histories—which brings us back to Renty.

Agassiz was a proponent of polygenesis, the now-debunked idea that the races were separate, unequal species. In 1850, he traveled to a South Carolina plantation to collect evidence to support his theory and commissioned portraits of slaves that would later be shared and studied at Harvard. Renty’s was one of those portraits. To Agassiz, Renty was nothing more than a specimen to prop up his racist pseudoscientific theories.

“Agassiz classified and cataloged those men and women by their physical characteristics in much the same way that he classified and cataloged species of animals early in his career,” Cohen said at the Radcliffe conference. Yet Renty, a member of the Congo tribe and the father of a woman named Delia who was enslaved on the same plantation, “was surely much more than either Agassiz’s list of characteristics or the bare facts revealed in the conventional written record,” she added. “Much of his personal story remains unknown or pieced together by conjecture, because so much has been erased from the written record. But that does not mean we should stop trying to know more.”

After decades in an attic, the portraits were discovered at Harvard’s Peabody Museum in 1976. In recent years, the Radcliffe Institute has hosted two seminars on what are now known as the Agassiz images.

Of course, the relationship between universities and slavery cuts far deeper than controversial daguerreotypes and junk science. “Slavery was big business. It was huge, so huge that it’s literally impossible to imagine the United States without it,” Coates said. “That sounds rhetorical, but if you talk about 4 million enslaved African Americans in this country in 1860, those 4 million African Americans, collectively, were worth $3 billion at that period of time. They were, by far, the greatest asset in this country.”

They were also the greatest asset at some universities. In 1838, two Jesuit priests, early presidents at Georgetown University, sold 272 slaves for $115,000. The sale saved the university from financial disaster, but left it with a tainted legacy that school officials still wrestle with today. (Recently, Jeremy Alexander, a current Georgetown employee, discovered that one of his ancestors was among those the university had sold.)

“I’m a historian of slavery at an institution that owes its existence to slavery, and I just think about that all the time,” said Adam Rothman, a Georgetown history professor and speaker on Higginbotham’s panel. He is also a member of that university’s Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation.

Last year, Georgetown announced that it would give descendants of those sold by the university preferential status in the school’s admissions process. “We recognize the need to reconcile a painful part of our history,” said the university’s president, John J. DeGioia, during his announcement. So far, this is the most wide-ranging effort of any university to address its complicity in slavery.

Wilder credited students with “helping to keep the conversation alive—very often with black students on our campuses, but not only with black students. Student protests and student struggles have helped keep us honest.”

At some universities, students have agitated for the elimination of names or symbols that honor slave owners or segregationists. Yale, after escalating protests, announced this year that it would remove the name of John C. Calhoun—a Yale graduate, South Carolina statesman, and 19th-century white supremacist—from a residential college. After a spirited debate, Harvard Law School (HLS) retired its shield, which had been inspired by the coat of arms belonging to the slave-owning family of Isaac Royall Jr. His patronage allowed the University to establish the Royall Professorship of Law in 1815; two years later, HLS was founded.

Coates in conversation with Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust. Photo by Tony RinaldoCoates in conversation with Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust. Photo by Tony RinaldoInevitably, such gestures, however meaningful or symbolic, lead to divisive conversations about reparations. This remains a highly controversial subject, one debated with renewed vigor after Coates made a compelling argument in his 2014 article “The Case for Reparations” in the Atlantic. At Radcliffe’s conference, Coates was emphatic about the need for slaves’ descendants to receive financial recompense.

“I don’t know how you conduct research that says your very existence is rooted in a great crime, and you just say, at best, ‘Sorry,’ and walk away,” he said in his address. “It’s very important to use that word [reparations] to acknowledge that something was done.”

Holidays such as Presidents’ Day and the Fourth of July provide a way of “taking a moment to say thanks,” Coates said. “I just think it works the other way, also. When you stand on the backs of other people who have been exploited . . . any institution that wants to teach young people about morals and ethics, you have to do the right thing and make some amends for that.”

While no university has yet offered reparations, it’s important to remember that this demanding work for universities and colleges, when compared with 250 years of slavery, is still in its infancy. It may not be moving fast enough for some, but others would prefer that these investigations didn’t move at all. On the day of the conference, people spewing racist invective temporarily hijacked its social-media hashtag. Of course, whenever discussions of racism inflame racists, it only serves to underline the need not just for conversation but for action.

“Don’t tell universities that they can’t investigate their own histories, that they don’t have a linkage to their pasts,” said Stanford’s Campbell.

To identify, own, and joust with the ghosts of our history is to attempt to make whole, to the degree possible, what has been broken. This is part of our debt to Renty, to the millions whose names we’ll never know, and to all who still suffer for the unpaid debts of this nation’s greatest crime. Said Faust: “We look at both past and present today in the firm belief that only by coming to terms with history can we free ourselves to create a more just world.”


Renee Graham is an opinion columnist for the Boston Globe.

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