Reflections on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery Report

April 26, 2022

Dear members of the FAS community,

Earlier today, President Bacow shared the report of the Committee on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery. The result of nearly three years of painstaking and uncompromising research, it brings to light Harvard’s historic ties—direct, financial, and intellectual—to slavery, extending long after slavery’s end in Massachusetts in 1783. Our institution owes the members of the Committee a profound debt of gratitude for their unflinching inquiry and for the commitment to truth and repair that animates their recommendations.

I encourage each member of the FAS community to read the report in full, knowing that this is itself not an easy task. It took me four days to read the report, and the experience was deeply unsettling. Again and again, I found myself overwhelmed by what was on the page, struggling to absorb hard truths, so carefully and systematically documented. The report narrates a history that, perhaps like other members of the Black community at Harvard, I have always understood intuitively, even before the particulars were fully revealed: We have been excluded and denigrated for centuries from an institution where we now work, study, and lead. Our presence here should not feel so extraordinary. But we now see it was anything but inevitable. The report details with searing clarity all the ways in which Harvard’s leaders and generations of its scholars betrayed our motto of Veritas. This knowledge should humble us all, even as we commit ourselves to the work of redress.

The report also provides empowering knowledge, including a history of resistance that is available to us. Social scientists like Ralphe Bunche and W.E.B. Du Bois, whose scholarship has long inspired and informed my own, I now understand also worked to make a place for me at Harvard. That is knowledge that will fuel my work, and my sense of belonging, going forward. Their legacy, too, is an important part of our institutional history and memory. Knowing that, we can—and should—choose to lead.

The imperative of holding both that sense of humility and empowerment in balance will be difficult. In our eagerness to act, to rescue a sense of hope and agency from a painful legacy, there is the risk of rushing past the hard parts—the discomfort, the anger, the grief. But the stories and the lives we now know, they deserve our full attention. People like Sturmann, a boy who in 1861, at only seventeen years old, took his own life after months of being on public display as a “living specimen,” and whose un-consenting body was then used as a tool to justify theories of racial hierarchy that remain deeply embedded in American society. Stories like this should stop us in our tracks. Before we can reckon with our history, we must take time to sit with these stories, tell them, and retell them, bear witness to their pain and to their humanity. These lives deserve nothing less.

We do not—nor should we—have all the answers today to the burning question: ‘Where do we go from here?’. We will create space in the weeks and months ahead to wrestle with this legacy and define our agenda. Certainly, the report and its findings bring new urgency to important work already underway in the FAS, from evolving our visual culture, to diversifying our faculty and staff, and increasing opportunity through the expansion of our undergraduate financial aid program. These are a start, but they are far from enough if we are to live up to our motto and close the gap between our history and our highest ideals. We will bring to bear the full intellectual breadth and expertise of the FAS as we seize every opportunity to advance the recommendations in the report, including forging meaningful connections with the vibrant academic communities at historically Black colleges and universities.

The report on the legacy of slavery details a painful history, but it also offers our generation a remarkable opportunity—to write a new story for Harvard. How we choose to respond, as individuals and as an institution, will reveal the depth of our commitment to Veritas and will establish the foundation on which future generations will pursue the Harvard mission.

In the days ahead, you will receive more information about events, in the FAS and across Harvard, that will provide opportunities for discussion of the report. I encourage you to make time to attend. Meanwhile, I give you my personal commitment to learn from the difficult truths in this report and to fully embrace the challenges it sets out before us in pursuing its recommendations. Our history is not the last word on Harvard. Together, we are the authors of our school’s future.

Sincerely,
Claudine

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Claudine Gay
Edgerley Family Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences