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Can Harvard Truly Address Its Legacy of Slavery?

I stepped onto Harvard’s campus as a first-year last semester on the backs of greats. I entered Harvard revering the legacies of scholars like W.E.B DuBois, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, and Cornel West, just to name a few, but that wasn’t the selling point for me. It wasn’t until I found out that one of my favorite scholars, Fred Moten, attended Harvard as an undergraduate that I really felt secure in my decision.

Now, as I have made it through my first semester at Harvard, none of their legacies bring me ease or satisfaction. The more I learn about Harvard, the more I realize that every student — past, present, and future — enters Harvard on the backs of slaves. Slaves who served as janitors, as kitchen maids, and as personal servants for the University and its students. Even University administrators and professors owned slaves, all of which has been documented in a publication about the legacy of slavery at Harvard.

As Frank Wilderson says, “Where there are Slaves it is unethical to be free.” No institution has been untouched by slavery and anti-Blackness in the U.S., and like anti-Blackness, Harvard also precedes the founding of the United States. Harvard was the first institution of higher learning in what is now known as the U.S., and because of this Harvard has played a large role in higher education in America. However, this influence has a dark side, as many of Harvard’s benefactors, students, and faculty were deeply involved in the slave trade.

While Harvard carves out spaces for Black scholarship through its African and African American Studies Department and its Legacy of Slavery Research Grants, its legacy of slavery continues to extend into the present. Harvard currently invests in prisons, refuses to give back photographs of slaves to their descendants, and disposseses indigenous populations worldwide by purchasing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of land in Brazil, Africa, and the United States. We also can see with the refusals of tenure for Professors Lorgia García Peña and Cornel West that Harvard’s legacy of slavery affects the present, as Black people are still seen as disposable and fungible by the University. This illuminates why it is impossible to see the legacy of Harvard as extricable from slavery. Slavery has always been and always will be a part of Harvard, and acknowledging this legacy brings up an ethical dilemma that calls into question the legitimacy of Harvard all together.

If Harvard — or any colonial institution — wanted to truly address the harms that they have perpetrated over the past 500 plus years, all they would have to do is “Return Turtle Island to the ‘Savage.’ Repair the demolished subjectivity of the Slave,” as Wilderson writes in his book Red, White, and Black. Harvard claims to want to address its legacy of slavery, but instead they use their money and resources to fight a court battle where Tamara Lanier is trying to get her ancestor’s daguerreotypes back from the University. And yes, Harvard gives $1500 grants to students to research about Harvard’s connection to slavery, but at the bare minimum that should be coupled with a pledge to give reparations to the descendants of slaves that were owned by the University, administrators, professors, or anyone else that worked or studied at Harvard.

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A commitment to addressing the harms of slavery is a commitment to addressing the harms of anti-Blackness. There is no way to address the effects and legacies of slavery without addressing how slavery still seeps into our everyday lives, from our political institutions to even the ways that we study, learn, and interact with knowledge — especially at Harvard. If Harvard truly wanted to address its continuing legacy of slavery, Harvard’s educational practices, their investment strategies, and overall ways of existing as a University would be different. If Harvard truly rectified its harms of slavery, Harvard as we know it today would not exist.

Christian A. Gines ‘25, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Massachusetts Hall.

This piece is a part of a focus on Black authors and experiences for Black History Month.


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