The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Harvard’s history with slavery reveals an ugly truth about America

A headstone marks the grave of Cicely, a 15-year-old Negro "servant" of the Rev. William Brattle, a treasurer at Harvard College, at the Old Burying Ground just outside Harvard Yard in Cambridge, Mass., on April 27. (Charles Krupa/AP)
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The French novelist Honoré de Balzac was right: “The secret of great fortunes with no obvious source is a crime, forgotten because it was well executed.” In the United States, Southern plantation slavery has dominated historical memory.

But Harvard University’s 134-page report on how slavery benefited the nation’s oldest, richest and most prestigious institution of higher learning bluntly illustrates a crime many Americans prefer to ignore: The whole nation, not just the South, grew rich and powerful from the unpaid labor of enslaved African Americans.

Between Harvard’s founding in 1636 and the outlawing of slavery in Massachusetts in 1783, “Harvard faculty, staff, and leaders enslaved more than 70 individuals,” the report says. But that is only the beginning.

More important is the fact that many major donors — whose gifts “helped the University build a national reputation, hire faculty, support students, grow its collections, expand its physical footprint, and develop its infrastructure” — made their money from the profits of slavery.

Let me quote one key passage from the report, released this week, at length:

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“These financial ties include donors who accumulated their wealth through slave trading; from the labor of enslaved people on plantations in the Caribbean islands and the American South; from the sale of supplies to such plantations and trade in goods they produced; and from the textile manufacturing industry in the North, supplied with cotton grown by enslaved people held in bondage in the American South. During the first half of the 19th century, more than a third of the money donated or promised to Harvard by private individuals came from just five men who made their fortunes from slavery and slave-produced commodities.”

The crucial acknowledgment that Harvard makes is that this slavery-derived wealth compounded over the decades and centuries, much as money in an interest-bearing bank account grows in a steepening curve over time. The same thing happened on a far grander scale to the wealth that the nation as a whole realized from the coerced, uncompensated labor of enslaved Black men, women and children.

Guest Opinion: Here is a hard historical truth: Slavery powerfully shaped Harvard

The bounty that industrial-scale agricultural slavery produced in the South benefited the North as well. Some of the biggest slave traders were based in Rhode Island. The cotton grown in Alabama and Mississippi supplied the mills of Massachusetts. Financing slavery-based agriculture and trading in its products were so profitable for Wall Street that the powerful mayor of New York, Fernando Wood, lobbied — unsuccessfully — for the city to remain neutral during the Civil War and continue doing business with the South.

Universities have taken the lead, among U.S. institutions, in admitting the ways in which they benefited from slavery and are beginning to redress some of the grievous harm they caused. Universities Studying Slavery, a consortium of 94 schools founded by and based at the University of Virginia, meets twice yearly to further efforts at scholarship and atonement.

One of the most egregious episodes in the sordid history of financing higher education through slavery happened at Georgetown University, one of the premier Catholic universities in the nation. In 1838, with the university facing financial ruin, the Jesuits who ran the school sold 272 enslaved Black people to plantations in Louisiana, where living and working conditions for the enslaved were as harsh as anywhere in the country. The money from that sale kept Georgetown afloat. Like most U.S. colleges, Georgetown discriminated against African Americans in admissions and hiring well into the 20th century.

“Slavery’s legacies persist in racial disparities in education, health, employment, income, wealth and the criminal justice system,” Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow and Harvard Radcliffe Institute Dean Tomiko Brown-Nagin wrote this week in The Post. “The question before us now is how best to reckon with these realities and atone for our past. Acknowledging the truth is not enough. We have a moral obligation to take action.”

The authors pledged that Harvard will spend $100 million to marshal “Harvard’s intellectual, reputational and financial resources ... to address the harms of the university’s ties to slavery,” with most of the money apparently earmarked for research and education.

The Georgetown revelations prompted even more concrete action: The Jesuit order has promised to raise a $100 million fund administered in partnership with the descendants of the 272 enslaved workers Georgetown sold. Some of that money will fund other organizations, but it will also support both education and elder care for the posterity of Georgetown’s former slaves.

Acknowledgment, research and scholarships are a start. And Bacow and Brown-Nagin may be right that “we can never fully remedy the incalculable damage caused by America’s ‘original sin.’ ” But they and their peers could try a lot harder. Most deserving Black students, after all, cannot identify an ancestor who was enslaved by a well-endowed major university.

The whole nation stole centuries of labor and wealth from African Americans. Any real recompense requires the nation as a whole to come to terms with this monstrous crime.

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