Opinion | Here’s the truth about Harvard’s historical ties to slavery

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Lawrence S. Bacow is president of Harvard University. Tomiko Brown-Nagin is President of the Presidential Initiative on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery and Dean of the Harvard Radcliffe Institute.

In its groundbreaking 1935 book, “Black Reconstruction in America,” WEB Du Bois eloquently described the tragedy and triumph intertwined in American history. “Nations make terrible mistakes; they make terrible mistakes; they do great and beautiful things,” he wrote, “and should we not best guide mankind by telling the truth about all this, as far as the truth can be established?”

American universities have long celebrated the idea that in our pursuit of knowledge we seek the truth. In fact, Harvard’s motto – our university and America’s oldest – is Veritas, Latin for truth. Yet the gap between the declared values ​​of universities and the truth of the history of these institutions has become apparent in recent years – never more so than when we consider their intricacies of slavery.

Here’s one such truth: Slavery strongly shaped Harvard.

Contrary to popular belief, slavery in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries was fundamental to New England’s economy. It was legal in Massachusetts, where Harvard is based, until 1783. At that time, Harvard was nearly 150 years old.

We now know that Harvard leaders, faculties, and staff turned more than 70 people of African and Native American descent into slaves. Some of these slaves worked at and for the university, including in the households of Harvard presidents.

Harvard’s ties to slavery and its heritage run even deeper: the work of enslaved people enriched donors to the university, helping Harvard expand its infrastructure, grow its faculty and students, and build its reputation. And prominent Harvard leaders and professors defended slavery, justified segregation, and alienated racial hierarchy and discrimination.

For too long, Harvard has ignored these painful truths. But not anymore. Today, we mark a new chapter by publishing a report that largely documents the university’s intricacies with slavery and its legacy.

Harvard is certainly not the first higher education institution to recognize these truths. Others in the United States and around the globe have documented their own ties to slavery. More than 90 institutions have joined the Universities Studying Slavery consortium, anchored at the University of Virginia, whose mission is to share best practices for addressing racism and human slavery in our stories.

This heritage is also not unique to universities. In recent years, historians have documented that U.S. presidents, members of Congress, U.S. Supreme Court justices, and leading corporations have significant ties to slavery.

The legacy of slavery consists of racial differences in education, health, employment, income, wealth, and the criminal justice system. The question before us now is how we can best reckon with these realities and zone for our past.

Acknowledging the truth is not enough. We have a moral obligation to act.

Where institutions have expertise, they should use their strengths to serve a better future. Governments, banks, museums, healthcare systems and others must consider the ways in which they can best deal with inequalities born of our common past. At Harvard, we are teachers and researchers; our biggest contribution will be in education and research.

In order to be meaningful, our actions must be visible, lasting, grounded in an ongoing process of engagement with affected communities of descendants and linked to the nature of the harm caused. Harvard’s intellectual, reputational, and financial resources should be pooled to address the damage of the university’s ties to slavery, just as our predecessors used these same resources in ways that caused deep damage.

Harvard promises to draw on its expertise in education to confront persistent inequalities – tangible legacies from slavery – that affect communities in the United States and the Caribbean to which New England’s slavery economies were closely linked. We will fund this work with a commitment of $ 100 million, including a gift to support these efforts forever.

We are not naive. This is a time of deep social divisions, and we know that our efforts can be met with criticism and cynicism. Some will belittle revelations of entanglements with slavery and insist that attempts to remedy past mistakes are unnecessary. Others who are dedicated to specific forms of compensation, such as one-time payments in compensation, will argue that any other approach is inadequate.

Yet we believe that there are many paths forward for institutions involved in slavery. And we invite dialogue – and civic, informed debate – on this vital work.

All American institutions have before them the opportunity to participate in a bold rethinking of our nation, marked by investment in human potential and a renewed commitment to the ideals of the founding of our nation.

We can never fully remedy the incalculable damage caused by America’s “inherited sin.” But we have the ability and the responsibility, in Du Bois’ words, to do “great and beautiful things.”

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