Harvard released a report last week about the school’s legacy of slavery and racism, as well as a pledge to spend $100 million to fund programs to address past wrongs.
Harvard President Larry Bacow originally began this initiative in 2019 — and on April 26, he announced the findings, as well as some sweeping recommendations.
In a video announcement, Bacow said: “The truth is that slavery played a significant part in our institutional history. The truth is that the legacy of slavery continues to influence the world in the form of disparities in education, health, wealth, income, social mobility, and almost any other metric we might use to measure equality.”
The report found that between 1636 (when the school was founded) to 1783 (when slavery ended in Massachusetts), leaders and workers at the school enslaved more than 70 people, although it added that number is “almost certainly an undercount.”
The report also included the names of some of the slaves, as well as the people who enslaved them.
It said that the university profited from slavery and had financial connections to it in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries through its donors. This includes donors who got rich through the slave trade, as well as connections to plantations in the South.
It also pointed out how the remains of thousands of people are in Harvard’s museum collections, and a lot of them are believed to be from Indigenous people, with at least 15 of them from Africa that could have been enslaved.
The report recommended that the school engage with descendant communities and honor enslaved people through “Memorialization, Research, Curricula, and Knowledge Dissemination.” They also said the school should create partnerships with black colleges and universities.
The committee is calling it “reparative” but they didn’t actually call for direct payments to slave descendants. They did, however, recommend that Harvard should try to find the direct descendants of slaves associated with the school.
They also said the responses to the report “would be voluntary” and not done because of a legal requirement. As for legally mandated reparations, the idea has circulated for a while but it’s had a hard time getting off the ground.
A bill to create a Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans was introduced in the House last year. It was first introduced in the 80s.
On various occasions, initiatives geared toward helping the black community have been referred to as reparations, including programs like affirmative action, but direct payments to slave descendants based purely on genealogy have not been tried on any large scale.
In California, a reparations task force had some pushback over a vote about who would qualify for reparations. In a 5 to 4 decision, the members voted to define those who are eligible as people who descended from an enslaved person or a free black person in the U.S. before the end of the 19th century.
Other schools have taken this kind of action, too, but this isn’t Harvard’s only scandal with racist allegations. Harvard is still embroiled in a lawsuit that will soon appear before the Supreme Court where they’re being accused of discriminating against Asian Americans in admissions. In the 1920s Harvard college also had an admissions policy limiting the number of Jews.