Harvard commits $100M to redress its complicity with slavery

The university’s attempt to reckon with its past is detailed in a report titled “Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery,” which documents how the slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries “comprised a vital part of the New England economy, and powerfully shaped Harvard University.”

“It was embedded in the fabric and the institutions of the North, and it remained legal in Massachusetts until the Supreme Judicial Court ruled it unconstitutional in 1783.”

Bacow said slavery played a significant part in Harvard’s institutional history and enslaved people worked on campus and supported students, faculty, staff, and university presidents. Their labor “enriched numerous donors and, ultimately, the institution.”

For nearly 150 years — from the founding of the university in 1636 until Massachusetts abolished slavery — Harvard presidents and others enslaved more than 70 people, according to the report, which lists their names in an appendix.

The university and its donors benefited from the slave trade into the 19th century, the report said.

“These profitable financial relationships included, most notably, the beneficence of donors who accumulated their wealth through slave trading; from the labor of enslaved people on plantations in the Caribbean islands and in the American South; and from the Northern textile manufacturing industry, supplied with cotton grown by enslaved people held in bondage.”

The report said Harvard’s financial investments included “loans to Caribbean sugar planters, rum distillers, and plantation suppliers along with investments in cotton manufacturing.”

University presidents and professors also promoted “race science” and eugenics and carried out abusive “research” on enslaved people, the report said.

“I believe we bear a moral responsibility to do what we can to address the persistent corrosive effects of those historical practices on individuals, on Harvard, and on our society,” the university president wrote.

The report includes recommendations to redress that legacy “through teaching, research, and service” and the commitment of $100 million for the creation of a legacy of slavery fund.

“Some of these funds will be available for current use, while the balance will be held in an endowment to support this work over time,” Bacow said.

The announcement comes as other universities across the nation attempt to reckon with their complicity with slavery.

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