Harvard Pledges $100M to Redress Role in Slavery

The university announced the creation of the endowment in conjunction with the release of a report showing Harvard's "extensive entanglements with slavery."
2 min read

Share this Article

  • A new Harvard report details how the university benefited from slavery.
  • Harvard established a $100 million endowment to enact the report's recommendations.
  • Harvard is the latest U.S. university to acknowledge its involvement with slavery.

Slavery played a significant role in the history and growth of Harvard University, according to a new report released by the school this week.

Titled "Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery," the report details how the university benefited from slavery and perpetuated racial inequality. It makes detailed recommendations for how Harvard can redress that legacy.

In a message to the university community, Harvard President Lawrence Bacow acknowledged the discomfort and pain caused by the findings and announced the creation of a $100 million endowment to carry out the report's recommendations.

Harvard "perpetuated practices that were profoundly immoral," Bacow said in his message. "Consequently, 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."

Report Details How Harvard Profited From Slavery

The 130-page report found that for nearly 150 years — from the university's founding in 1636 until Massachusetts abolished slavery in 1783 — Harvard's leaders enslaved more than 70 people of African descent and Indigenous people.

However, that figure is "almost certainly an undercount," the report said in an appendix listing the individuals enslaved by Harvard leadership, faculty, staff, and donors.

The report likewise details how the nation's wealthiest college, with an endowment that is today more than $50 billion, profited from the slavery and slave-produced commodities throughout its early history. Harvard invested in the sugar and rum industries in the Caribbean, and the cotton and railroad industries in the U.S., according to the report.

Harvard also benefited greatly from wealthy donors who made fortunes through the slave trade and its dependent industries in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, according to the report.

"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," according to the report.

Recommendations Include Partnerships with HBCUs

The $100 million endowment will be used to implement the report's recommendations through teaching, research, and service.

It is particularly appropriate for Harvard to take such steps, the report noted, because "American society depends on universities to reflect and promote its highest ideals."

"The gap between the missions and values of universities — the pursuit of knowledge, truth-seeking, integrity, and opportunity — and the reality of involvement with slavery is stark," the report said.

Among the report's recommendations are strengthening partnerships with historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) through the appointment of visiting HBCU professors to Harvard and subsidies for HBCU students to study at Harvard.

Because Harvard benefited from the enslavement of Native Americans, the report also calls for the university to create closer ties with New England tribes, recruit more students from tribal communities, and organize a national conference promoting research on colonialism and the enslavement of Indigenous people in the U.S.

Harvard will also expand work to identify Black and Indigenous students who are direct descendants of people enslaved in the U.S.

"We further recommend that, in recognition of this lineage, the university engage with these descendants through dialogue, programming, information sharing, relationship building, and educational support," the report said.

Colleges Acknowledge And Atone for Involvement with Slavery

Harvard's report and new endowment represent the latest — and perhaps largest — effort by U.S. universities to acknowledge and atone for involvement with slavery.

It's report credits Brown University for being one of the first institutions of higher education and the first Ivy League school to formally acknowledge its ties to slavery. In 2003, then-President Ruth Simmons appointed a special committee to explore the school's historical relationship to slavery, and in 2006, the school issued its "Slavery and Justice" report.

The university subsequently made significant investments in support of local educational institutions, including a $10 million endowment to promote academic excellence for K-12 students in Providence.

More recently, the Princeton Theological Seminary established a $27.6 million reparative endowment, created scholarship funds, and hired new staff in 2019. The same year, Georgetown University also announced a fund that would raise $400,000 annually to benefit the descendants of enslaved people that the college sold in 1838, following a referendum passed by students.

Harvard's new report builds on the work of former President Drew Gilpin Faust. In 2016, she publicly acknowledged that "Harvard was directly complicit in America's system of racial bondage," according to the report. She also established a committee on Harvard and slavery that conducted a preliminary investigation.

Bacow commissioned the new report in 2019 to build on that committee's preliminary investigation.

"In releasing this report and committing ourselves to following through on its recommendations, we continue a long tradition of embracing the challenges before us," Bacow wrote in his message to the Harvard community. "That, too, is a vital part of our history. Let us learn from this report and work together to recognize and redress the injustices that it so carefully documents."