Professors Tapped By Bacow to Study Harvard’s Ties To Slavery Discuss Committee’s Work


The chair and two members of the Presidential Committee on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery met for a Tuesday afternoon virtual webinar to discuss the Committee’s work and plans.

Organized by the Radcliffe Institute, the panel featured Radcliffe Institute Dean Tomiko Brown-Nagin, who chairs the committee, History Professor Tiya Miles, the co-chair of the subcommittee focused on “campus and community,” and University Professor and former Law School Dean Martha Minow, who co-chairs the subcommittee on curriculum and educational materials.

Brown-Nagin announced during the panel that the committee will release a report of historical findings and recommendations for action “during winter of this year,” adding that its work will be “a beginning, rather than an end” to Harvard’s engagement with its history surrounding slavery.

University President Lawrence S. Bacow announced the formation of the committee in November 2019, writing that its work would allow Harvard to “continue to understand and address the enduring legacy of slavery within our university community.”


The initiative would “provide opportunities to convene academic events, activities, and conversations that will encourage our broader university community to think seriously and rigorously about the continuing impact and legacy of slavery,” Bacow wrote at the time.

Brown-Nagin said the committee — which includes 14 faculty from 10 of Harvard’s 12 degree-granting schools — is undertaking a “monumental” effort that demands a “multidisciplinary lens.”

“Our collective hope for a more just society requires us as individuals and as a community to pursue truth fearlessly and thoughtfully, and this means engaging with the present and not only with the present, but also with the past,” Brown-Nagin said.

“We can’t dismantle what we don’t understand,” she said. “And we can’t understand contemporary inequity and injustice unless we reckon honestly with our history.”

Fostering broader engagement with history is at the core of the “campus and community” subcommittee’s work, Miles said.

“All of us develop a sense of who we are through history, through how it is that we define the past, through how it is that we apply the past to our own lives,” she said. “If we believe that historical understanding is collective, we have to open up a process that involves the community.”

The subcommittee’s work has been guided by “asking what it is that broader communities, not just Harvard, will gain from the work that we do,” Miles added.

Among the initiatives under consideration are a “graphic catalogue” of objects and places associated with Harvard’s ties to slavery, walking tours, public discussions, and a possible collaboration with the American Repertory Theatre.

The subcommittee on curriculum has focused on making research and course materials related to Harvard’s ties with slavery “much more readily available and usable,” Minow said. It is also engaging with filmmakers about the possibility of creating a series of films on the “experiences of slavery and their influence at Harvard.”

“We can’t change the past, but we can change the trajectory of the future,” she said.

The panel discussion comes just over a month after Bacow announced that the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology had found in its collections the remains of 15 people of African descent alive during the time of slavery in the United States.

“This terrible discovery calls for an urgent response,” Brown-Nagin wrote to Radcliffe Institute staff at the time.

In the Q&A session at the end of the discussion, Brown-Nagin briefly addressed questions about Harvard's possession of photographs of enslaved people commissioned by Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz in the 19th century as part of a racist project to prove the biological superiority of white people. A Massachusetts court last week rejected a lawsuit against Harvard that alleged the University's possession of those images was illegal.

“The most recent statement from the University commits to making those daguerreotypes more publicly accessible, and we look forward to hearing more about that,” Brown-Nagin said.

Discussion attendees also sent questions about the student movement encouraging Harvard to divest its endowment from private prisons.

“There is the statement — the position of the university,” Brown-Nagin said. “Then there’s the work of the Committee. And I will say that this committee appreciates that mass incarceration is very relevant to the work that we're doing.”

One discussion attendee asked Miles what her projection was for the amount of time it would take for humanity to “heal” from the damages caused by slavery.

“I think we need quite a long timeline,” Miles said. “When I think back to my enslaved ancestors, I really reflect on that — on how they had to have a long timeline, in order to keep themselves moving from day to day in the conditions under which they have to live.”

“We are so deeply enmeshed in racial hierarchies,” she added. “I think it will take at least as long as this country has existed — and before that, because this was going on in the colonial era — and longer for us to start to unweave that net.”

—Staff writer Oliver L. Riskin-Kutz can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @OLRiskinKutz.