Harvard’s topical attempt to redress the past

Harvard university is well known to be one of the most exclusive and important universities in North America and worldwide. One of the famous “Ivy League”, the University played a fundamental educational role for many scientists, researchers and even presidents of the United States. Still, the university (considered also a “symbol” of the white upper class of the country) has been recently involved in one of the few admissions of guilt from an academic institute regarding its role in the past period of slavery. It all started with the “illuminated” research from an idea of the Harvard history professor Sven Beckert, that published a 134-page report (inspired by a similar research conducted in the Brown University) about the history of slavery in the University campus and its aftermath.

The report, published on April 26 by the Committee on Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery, investigate the history of abuses, prevarications and racial enslavement perpetrated in Harvard university, exposing the financial dependency of the college from rich enterprises operating with slaves even after Massachusetts banned slavery in 1783.

The report found that over 70 individuals were enslaved since university’s founding in 1636 to 1783. Slaves in Harvard could serve presidents and professors of the institute, in some cases even students. Many of them lived on campus, near the president’s residence. At least 41 important people enslaved people in the university in the 18th century; most remarkable, Harvard received huge donations even after 1973 from many plantation owners.

Researchers also found out that the university was a place where fake theories of racial differences have spread and were used to justify this immoral behavior.

However, now the Harvard institution is making attempts to address the problem; particularly important are the words coming from Harvard President Lawrence Bacow:

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.”

In a long letter to the entire Harvard community, Bacow also announced the establishment of a $100 milllion “Legacy of Slavery Fund” in order encourage more researches from students to completely undercover Harvard’s connections to slavery. Moreover, the fund will be used to create memorials to honor the past, to create new partnership with schools in territories where slave owners have created fortunes and created damage for generations to come, and finally to create exchange programs with historically Black colleges.

Even though reparations are not part of the plan, many descendants of enslaved people in Harvard started to reach the institution to find a way to collaborate and expose the past of abuses. In fact, while a part of the progeny of those enslaved people welcomed the plan in a bittersweet way due to the lack (for now) of direct reparations, others appreciated the educational-based approach of the fund, the intent to repair the aftermaths and the salient position of Harvard university.

This represents an unprecedented mea culpa from such an important institution in the education and research field, that could potentially shed light on the matter and be an example for many other universities, a turning point in the country to investigate the sometimes-unknown slavery past and tackle the deep-rooted consequences of the phenomenon. The $100 million fund is an essential part of the plan to redress the wrongdoings committed in the past, with or without direct reparations; a strong stance in a period where people are witnessing a surge in discrimination and political polarization within the American society.

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