A hard historical truth about Harvard

By Michael Duffy
Opinions editor-at-large

We are witnessing something of a watershed moment in the reckoning America is having with itself and its history. 

Harvard University released a 134-page report Tuesday that begins to explain how, as Post columnist Eugene Robinson put it, “the nation’s oldest, richest and most prestigious institution of higher learning” benefited from slavery. 

Two Harvard officials wrote in blunt terms about the university’s findings in a guest op-ed. “Slavery powerfully shaped Harvard,” wrote Lawrence S. Bacow, Harvard’s president, and Tomiko Brown-Nagin, dean of the Harvard Radcliffe Institute. “The labor of enslaved people enriched donors to the university, helping Harvard expand its infrastructure, grow its faculty and student body, and build its reputation. And prominent Harvard leaders and professors defended slavery, justified segregation, and promoted racial hierarchy and discrimination.”

Along with its report, Harvard announced a $100 million fund to, among other things, recommend next steps. 

“We are not naive,” Bacow and Brown-Nagin wrote. “This is an age of deep social divisions, and we know our efforts may be met with criticism and cynicism. Some will disparage disclosures of entanglements with slavery and insist that attempts to remedy past wrongs are unnecessary. Others, dedicated to specific forms of redress such as one-time payments in reparations, will argue that any other approach is insufficient.”

Eugene argued convincingly that Harvard’s actions, though just a start, point the way for the entire country: “The crucial acknowledgment that Harvard makes is that this slavery-derived wealth compounded over the decades and centuries, much as money in an interest-bearing bank account grows in a steepening curve over time. The same thing happened on a far grander scale to the wealth that the nation as a whole realized from the coerced, uncompensated labor of enslaved Black men, women and children.” 

Harvard’s history with slavery reveals an ugly truth about America

Harvard is just one Northern institution that grew rich and powerful from the unpaid labor of enslaved people.

By Eugene Robinson ●  Read more »

Categories: Racism

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