June 14, 2024

Harvard University said it is committing $100 million to study and redress the Ivy League institution’s historical ties to slavery, with a new report finding that early staff and faculty at the 386-year-old school once enslaved more than 70 people. 

Harvard President Larry Bacow announced the historic pledge on Tuesday, along with the release of the more than 100-page report on the institution’s legacy of slavery. The report also included recommendations for reparations from a special committee formed to study the issue. 

Bacow noted that Harvard had relied heavily on slavery for nearly 150 years after its founding in 1636, with several of the university’s presidents counted among those who enslaved other people. The enslaved individuals “worked and lived on campus, where they cared for Harvard presidents and professors and fed generations of Harvard students,” the report noted.

“As the committee’s report powerfully documents, Harvard’s history includes extensive entanglements with slavery,” Bacow wrote in a message to the Harvard community. “The report makes plain that slavery in America was by no means confined to the South.”

He added, “It was embedded in the fabric and the institutions of the North, and it remained legal in Massachusetts until the Supreme Judicial Court ruled it unconstitutional in 1783.”

The university also benefitted from financial ties to donors who accumulated their wealth through the slave trade, the report found.

The damage caused by Harvard’s ties to slavery should be addressed through “action,” the report noted. The report includes extensive recommendations, such as to identify the direct descendants of the people enslaved at Harvard and to partner with Historically Black Colleges and Universities, among other steps. 

Some of the $100 million will be available immediately, with the balance to remain in an endowment to support the university’s work over time.

Persistent discrimination

Discriminatory practices persisted on Harvard’s campus even after slavery was abolished in the U.S. in 1865. The university limited the presence of Black students on Harvard’s campus through racial segregation and exclusion that lasted well into the 20th century, according to the report. 

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For instance, the report found that about 160 Black men matriculated to Harvard in a 50-year span from 1890 to 1940, or about 3 Black students per year. “Such vanishingly small numbers frequently left Black men isolated and marginalized on campus,” the report said.

Harvard is part of a consortium of 50 schools, including Georgetown and Brown University, which have committed to addressing the role slavery played in their institutions’ pasts.

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