Harvard Advances Effort to Find Descendants of People Enslaved by University
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- The report, "Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery," details how the university benefited from slavery and perpetuated racial inequality.
- Among the report's recommendations is that Harvard identify the direct descendants of enslaved individuals who labored on Harvard's campus and those who were enslaved by Harvard leadership.
- Richard Cellini led a similar project for Georgetown University that located, identified, and traced direct descendants of enslaved people sold by that institution.
Harvard University is taking a step forward on its promise to reconcile its history with slavery by identifying and finding living and deceased descendants of people enslaved by Harvard's community members.
Harvard University last week announced the appointment of Richard Cellini to lead the Legacy of Slavery remembrance program. The program aims to identify direct living and deceased descendants of people enslaved by university leaders, faculty, and staff.
Cellini led a similar project for Georgetown University that located, identified, and traced direct descendants of 314 enslaved people sold in 1838 to fund Georgetown University, Harvard officials said.
"History only answers the questions we ask," Cellini said in a statement. "At Harvard, the University — the institution itself — is taking responsibility for identifying enslaved people and finding their direct descendants, living and deceased. And that's very big news."
The Legacy of Slavery remembrance program is the manifestation of one of the seven recommendations given to Harvard by the Presidential Committee on Harvard & The Legacy of Slavery. In April, Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow released a report on how the university benefited from slavery and established a $100 million endowment to fund the committee's recommendations.
The project will use genealogical and archival research to identify the descendants of Harvard's enslaved people. It will use the "Mayflower Standard," named after the rigor taken to determine the descendants of the Mayflower passengers and crew.
"Our efforts must be informed by the same standards of respect and scholarly rigor that have informed efforts to identify and certify descendants of other historical figures," said Tomiko Brown-Nagin, dean of Harvard Radcliffe Institute.
Brown-Nagin is a civil rights movement historian and chaired the Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery committee.
Cellini said the most challenging part is the looking, not the finding. Hindrances to looking may be emotional, psychological, financial, intellectual, spiritual, or cultural.
"But once we look, we find," said Cellini. "And when we find, the whole world changes. So, in some sense Harvard has already overcome the biggest hurdle in this process, which is having the willingness and the courage to look."