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Harvard examines its own historical roots in slavery

Kenneth J. Cooper | 12/15/2011, 5:50 a.m.

Brown University’s daring self-examination of its historical ties to slavery has prompted a second Ivy League school, venerable Harvard University, to do the same.

The 2006 report that Brown President Ruth Simmons commissioned found deep connections between the university in Providence, R.I., and slavery and the slave trade. “Slavery and Justice” pinpointed many ties — the university gets its very name from four brothers who owned and traded slaves and were major benefactors. The president’s office is in a building erected using some slave labor.

The goal, Simmons said in a recent interview, was to correct the “willful erasure of history, a history that is very important and very meaningful to a lot of people.”

Brown’s report inspired four Harvard undergraduates to ask the same questions about their school. The next year, a history professor, Sven Beckert, began teaching a seminar on the subject.

The research that his students did in Harvard archives and other historical records yielded a booklet in November that concludes: “Notwithstanding a deafening silence on the topic is most remembrances of this great university, Harvard’s history entails a whole range of connections to slavery.”

“Harvard and Slavery: Seeking A Forgotten History” found ties that are not as profound as Brown’s, but they are multiple and endured as long as slavery did in the United States.

Three years after Harvard’s founding in 1636, for example, slaves were working on its Cambridge campus. Slavery in Massachusetts lasted until 1783.

Three early Harvard presidents — Increase Mather, Benjamin Wadsworth and Edward Holyoke — owned slaves, though Mather manumitted his one slave in his will. Elmwood House, where Harvard presidents have lived since 1971, was built in 1767 by the owner of a slave plantation in Antigua, an island in the Caribbean.

The first occupants of an earlier residence for presidents, Wadsworth House, were two slaves named Venus and Titus. It is the second-oldest building on campus.

The first professorship in law was endowed in 1816 by Isaac Royall Jr., who owned plantations in Surinam, in South America, and Antigua. The famed law school opened a year later.

Other benefactors made their wealth by selling provisions to European colonies in the Caribbean and buying sugar that slaves there produced. Harvard rose to eminence and financial strength in the early 1800s. The students’ research shows five men involved with that trade gave Harvard nearly $500,000 between 1800 and 1850 — half the total in major donations received during that period. Harvard even made loans to other traders, from its endowment.

A university is supposed to promote free and open inquiry, but from the 1830s to the eve of the Civil War, Harvard suppressed debate on abolition on campus.

Two professors who joined an abolitionist society were shunned by their colleagues. One withdrew from the group and kept his job. The other remained in the Cambridge Anti-Slavery Society. His professorship was not renewed, and he left the faculty in 1835. Josiah Quincy, then Harvard’s president, denied that his administration pressured the professors because of their open support for abolition.