Harvard and Slavery: The Moral Responsibility of History

By Andrew Nurse

On April 26, 2022, Harvard University announced “that it will spend $100 million” as part of a plan to address what it’s president called “profoundly immoral” practices in the university’s past.[1] At issue is Harvard’s relationship to slavery, racism and colonialism. Harvard is not the first university to grapple with a deeply problematic past, but its response is certainly among the most detailed, expansive, and challenging. I’ll confess I like it, not the least because it asks us to think about history and its implications in important ways.

American universities began to address their historical relationship to slavery nearly two decades ago. In 2003, Brown University in Rhode Island appointed the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice. Its 2006 Report provided a model of comprehensiveness that Harvard seems to have tried to follow.[2] In the time since then, William and Mary, Emory, Alabama, UNC Chapel Hill as well as Dalhousie, Huron, and McGill, among others, in Canada have, in different ways, grappled with the same or similar questions.[3]

Harvard’s recently announced response follows an earlier 2007 student initiative that developed into a public documentation and historical research seminar.[4] The current response is more extensive and officially prescribed. It is the product of the Presidential Committee on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery that was established in 2019. Its report shows that as an institution Harvard was connected to slavery, racism, and colonialism in a myriad of ways. It was built on dispossessed Indigenous land, its growth was a product of wealth generated from the exploitation of slave labour, and key faculty provided an ideological justification for racialized discrimination and slavery. After slavery officially ended, racism and discrimination were part of Harvard’s operating procedures, even while some students and faculty challenged the bigotry that dominated the institution and American national life. The question for the committee was how could Harvard “reckon” with this past? By implication, this required answering another more fundamental question: what does “reckoning” with the past mean in the first place?[5]

The Committee recommended that Harvard address its responsibilities in a series of ways from working with the descendants of slavery, to building partnerships with Historically Black Colleges and Universities, to changes in its own memorial landscape, to establishing a “legacy fund” to continue reparation efforts, as well as a self-monitoring process.[6] This is a big project that includes virtual walking tours, web resources, and a documentary film with a guide to facilitate post-screening discussions as well as a significant, scholarly, and accessible final report Harvard and the Legacies of Slavery. Underlying all this is a philosophy of history that consists of several parts.

First, the Committee sees history as important in-and-of-itself because it pervades the very institutional environment of Harvard and because Harvard’s development was made possible by this past. The result, the Committee report noted, is that at Harvard “we live in a landscape of enslavement.”[7] This history is always already the background and context of Harvard higher education. As one committee member noted “there is no place outside of history.”[8] For Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow and the authors of the Presidential Committee report, this means that the recognition of historical injustices incurs obligations on the present particularly when the effects of that history create persistent inequalities: “we must do what we can to address the persistent corrosive effects of historical practices.”[9] This is a multi-level obligation incumbent on individuals, institutions, and the wider society. The fact that any individual or institution does not bear the full responsibility for the past, does not mean that it can elide a responsibility to address historical injustices. In other words, history brings with it obligations.

Second, this is so because when left alone the “corrosive effects” of history create problems. Most specifically, they create and perpetuate inequality. The present can, the report suggests, be located at a fork in the road. It has its own indeterminate historical location that becomes real only through the choices made on individual, institutional, and social levels. One choice is to do nothing and carry forward the “biases of the past.” The other is to see in the present an opportunity to build a different future. The point is that history presents choices that it itself has fashioned. Different people may make different choices, but they cannot avoid the fact that their actions – whatever these may be – are choices with implications for the future.[10]

Third, the responsibilities that derive from history are not necessarily comfortable. In fact, the opposite: the past carries with it an inherent and persistent discomfort. According to Harvard and the Legacies of Slavery, this responsibility is particularly critical for institutions of higher learning by virtue of their mission. Universities also have resources that they can use to meet this obligation. Said differently, universities are well equipped to meet the challenges of historical responsibility and discomfort. Some of the resources are monetary and, in the case of Harvard, this is certainly true. But it is not simply a case of money. Universities can “leverage scholarly resources” to meet their responsibilities. In the case of Harvard, the Committee notes that it can provide leadership, forge partnership with other institutions, maintain accessible resources that relate to history, conduct research, and engage in public education. Indeed, Harvard’s response suggests that there is a special burden regarding public education that is intended to expand historical knowledge outside the academy.

Finally, addressing the past involves a commitment over time. It involves an intentional effort to ensure that the past is not forgotten through public education as well as changes in institutional memorial landscapes and archival practices. This process needs to be meaningful and visible. While the Committee did not use these words, their argument makes this point: the failure to address the injustices of history will only create a sense of frustration and futility that makes it more difficult to conceptualize a better possible future.

I like this report for many reasons. I recognize that Harvard may have more time and money – a fact that is a product of the problematic history the report seeks to address – than other institutions. It may have more expertise and it clearly has more “name brand recognition” than a lot of other schools. That said, the time, care, and commitment the members of the Presidential Committee put into their work is impressive. The report is a fine work of accessible scholarship that details Harvard’s deep connections to bondage, colonialism, and race science. I am also impressed by the Committee’s willingness to take on a big and difficult project. I appreciate the fact they did.

Most impressive for me is their effort to think through a philosophy of history that empowers change. Their conception of history leads in multiple directions because it works on multiple levels. History can be approached in a range of ways, but their way is with a sense of duty and responsibility. Ignoring responsibility does not make the problems of history go away. They continue to plague society, serving as a corrosive that breeds only frustration and a sense of futility. The converse, the Committee’s report concludes, is a good faith commitment to higher ideals in which addressing the problems of history becomes the basis for a wider cultural renewal.[11] That is something I can get behind.

Andrew Nurse is a professor of Canadian Studies at Mount Allison University.


[1] Katherine Mangan, “‘Disturbing and Even Shocking’: Harvard to Spend $100 Million to Atone for ‘Immoral’ Ties to Slavery,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 26, 2022, <https://www.chronicle.com/article/disturbing- and-even-shocking-harvard-to-spend-100-million-to-atone-for-immoral-ties-to-slavery> accessed 27 April 2022.

[2] Report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, “Slavery and Justice” (Brown University, 2006), <https://slaveryandjustice.brown.edu/sites/default/files/reports/SlaveryAndJustice2006.pdf> accessed 2 May 2022.

[3] For a discussion of some developments in Canada see Amy Bell, Scott Cameron, and Thomas Peace, “Historical Pedagogies & the Colonial Past at Huron University College – Part 1,” Active History, November 28, 2019, <https://activehistory.ca/ 2019/11/historical-pedagogies-the-colonial-past-at-huron-university-college-part-1/> accessed 29 April 2022; Amy Bell, Scott Cameron, and Thomas Peace, “Historical Pedagogies & the Colonial Past at Huron University College – Part II,” Active History, December 5, 201,  <http://activehistory.ca/2019/12/ historical-pedagogies-the-colonial-past-at-huron -university-college-part-ii/> accessed 29 April 2022.

[4] Sven Beckert, Katherine Stevens, and the students in the Harvard and Slavery Research Seminar, “Harvard and Slavery: Seeking a Forgotten History,” 2011,<http://www.harvardandslavery.com/wp-content/uploads/ 2011/11/Harvard-Slavery-Book-111110.pdf> accessed 2 May 2022.

[5] Presidential Committee on Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery, “Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery,” 2011, https://legacyofslavery.harvard.edu/homepage.

[6] For a summary see Mangan, “‘Disturbing and Even Shocking.’”

[7] “Harvard & Slavery,” <http://www.harvardandslavery.com/> accessed May 1, 2022.

[8] Ivelisse Estrada, “Vincent Brown: Beyond the History Book,” Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University <https://www.radcliffe.harvard.edu/news-and-ideas/vincent-brown-beyond-the-history-book> accessed May 3, 2022.

[9] Lawrence S. Bacow, “Message from Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow,” Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery <https://legacyofslavery.harvard.edu/about/aboutmessage-from-president> accessed April 28, 2022.

[10] “A Short Film Introduction to Harvard’s Entanglements with Slavery,” Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, <https://legacyofslavery.harvard.edu/film> accessed April 28, 2022.

[11] Presidential Committee on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery, Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery (2022), 56 < https://radcliffe-harvard-edu-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/b2c5a41d-8bfd-4d04-933c-858670839e50/HLS-whole-report_FINAL_2022-04-25FINAL-ua.pdf> accessed 28 April 2022.

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