As Randall Kennedy wrote in his introduction to Werner Sollors’s and Caldwell Titcomb’s Blacks at Harvard: “Ambivalence is the word that best captures the way in which most African-American students, professors, administrators, guests, and alumni seem to have perceived, and reacted to, Harvard.” Some experiences have been positive; others have been negative, and, as usual, it is nearly impossible to make a generalization.
First, however, Harvard’s particular relationship with slavery is not to be overlooked. University President Benjamin Wadsworth, class of 1690, brought a male slave with him when he arrived at Harvard in 1725, and the following year bought a 20-year old female slave in Boston. Through the Harvard Botanical Garden, Harvard was involved with the Soledad plantation near Cienfuegos, Cuba beginning in 1910 until the Cuban Revolution, where supposedly Harvard faculty came into contact with slaves on the plantation. Elmwood, the house where University President Drew G. Faust resides, is even thought to have been built with money generated from estates in Antigua, according to Andrew Schlesinger’s history of Harvard.
However, African-Americans did not quite become a presence at Harvard until after the Civil War. Although Harvard’s long history is rife with moments of institutionalized racism, it should be said that, on the whole, the experience of the African-American at Harvard was much better than in other areas in American society of the day. As W.E.B. Du Bois—who graduated from the College in 1888 and became the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. from the University in 1895—put it, “sometimes the shadow of insult fell,” but, all in all, many more seem to agree with Richard Greener, the first African-American ever to graduate from Harvard College. “One test” applied to all Harvard students, Greener maintained: “Ability, character, and merit—these are the sole passports to her favor.”
Several controversies exploded in the subsequent generations, and The Crimson bore witness to all of them. For one, in 1922, President A. Lawrence Lowell, Class of 1877, decreed that black students would not be allowed to live in freshman dormitories with their white counterparts. “We have felt from the beginning the necessity of not including colored men,” he said. The following year, however, the Board of Overseers overruled Lowell’s decision, and black and white students could live together in freshman dormitories. However, in overturning Lowell’s decision, the Board also maintained that “in the application of this rule, men of the white and colored races shall not be compelled to live and eat together.” Clearly, prejudice still prevailed. A few years later, The Crimson responded to these concerns in a piece entitled “The College Negro,” which insisted that Harvard pay more attention to excluded African-Americans.
During the era of Civil Rights, even more tension arose on Harvard’s community as a result of the sea-changes in the national perception of race relations. In 1963, a contingent of students attempted to create the Association of African and Afro-American Students, which was controversial because of its implicit reliance on a racial prejudice of its own that excluded non-blacks and non-Africans. Herbert H. Denton Jr., a member of The Crimson’s editorial board, meditated on this exclusivity in a piece we have reprinted here. After several appearances on campus of Malcolm X and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., there was a general sentiment among Harvard’s black students that pushed for the creation of an “Afro-American Studies Department.” After the efforts of the Rosovsky Committee, this area of study was eventually established on campus.
Given recent embarrassments such as the “Quad Incident of 2007,” in which Harvard students called the authorities on a group of black Harvard students gathered on the Quad lawn—and the Boston nightclub incident that turned away black Harvard and Yale graduates after last year’s “Game”—the Harvard community has not escaped racial prejudice entirely, and we hope there will be a day in the future when such will be the case. In the meantime, however, we invite you to celebrate with us the rich tradition of African-American history at Harvard.
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