Justice  /  Book Excerpt

Black Students At Harvard Have Always Resisted Racism

Faculty and staff once owned slaves, and professors taught racial eugenics.
Harvard University Presidential Committee on the Legacy of Slavery

As much as Du Bois’s experience with the Harvard community—as both student and alumnus—illustrates the racism and disenfranchisement of that era on campus, it is also a powerful story of resistance. He directly and publicly challenged ideas and ideologies advanced by Harvard professors and administrators, including Dean Nathaniel Southgate Shaler and President Charles William Eliot. His dissertation, titled “The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638–1870,” pushed against the common understanding of slavery at the time, casting it as a moral failure with lasting consequences.

Another piece from Du Bois’s graduate student years, “Harvard and the South,” not only illustrates his willingness to enter the fraught discourse on the post–Civil War South but also offers glimpses into his experience, having been privy to intellectual discussions in which he was uniquely implicated because of his race. The paper argues that the Civil War was “at core the result of a vast economic mistake” and that the solution to the South’s problems of the day “lies in the trained leadership toward correct economic ideas” and “the intellectual impetus of the broadly trained university man.” In one particularly telling pas- sage, Du Bois notes his distance from the “Northern student of Southern affairs,” who, he writes, “wavers between calling the whites rascals, or the Negroes idiots.” The Northern student, he writes, “cannot decide whether to make out my Southern fellow student as a case of total depravity; or me as a specimen of the anthropoid ape.” Then, directly challenging his classmates’ stereotypes, he adds: “With as little personal bias as could be expected under the circumstances, I respectfully submit that he need do neither.” Du Bois subtly acknowledges the prejudice—whether scientific, social, or religious in nature—of his Harvard audience: “If the Southern people can once be brought to see that it is to their highest economic advantage to have their working classes as intelligent and ambitious and with as great political privileges as possible, I care not what they or you think as to the origen and destiny of the Negro people.”

Long after earning his PhD, Du Bois remained active within the Harvard community, including attending reunions, and he continued to push Hart, with whom he stayed in regular contact, on matters of representation. For example, Du Bois responded to a letter from Hart wishing him well on his 50th birthday with the following note:

My dear Prof. Hart: I want to thank you very much for the kind letter which you sent on my birthday. I have been noticing that “The American Year Book” with which you are connected, always says surprisingly little about the Negro of America and elsewhere. Cannot something be done about this?