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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...

In 1838, Quincy directly intervened to block the Divinity School faculty from holding a debate on abolition that would have been open to the public. He also wrote that even a debate restricted to the school’s students would not be prudent “in a seminary of learning, composed of young men from every quarter of the country; among whom are many whose prejudices, passions and interests are deeply implicated.”

Harvard had a share of students from slave-holding families in the South, particularly South Carolina. Quincy seemed concerned about possible disruption on campus — even though he had “well-documented anti-slavery leanings,” according to the booklet.

By the 1850s, abolition became more acceptable in mainstream opinion, but “calls from Harvard’s campus for immediate or gradual emancipation of slaves remained rare,” the booklet concludes.

One Latin professor was committed to the right side of history. The Cambridge home of Charles Beck was a stop on the Underground Railroad and had a trap door that led to a tiny bedroom in the basement. Harvard has owned the historic building, now called Warren House, since 1899.

Besides Brown and Harvard, three other colleges have examined their entanglement with slavery: the University of Maryland at College Park, the College of William and Mary in Virginia, and Emory University in Georgia.

Colleges and universities that do so stimulate more honest discussion about slavery. Simmons said the Brown report had promoted such discussions on its campus. Even so, she said, several years later mention of slavery tends to stop conversation there.