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Endowed by Slavery

Harvard made headlines by announcing that it would devote $100 million to remedying “the harms of the university’s ties to slavery.”

Wilder’s Ebony and Ivy and the many subsequent articles, reports, and monographs that took up his theme are essential reading for anyone concerned with the question of what higher education owes to Black Americans. But the keyword in that question, “owe,” has two meanings that ought to be distinguished. The first is retrospective, as in “I owe my career to my teachers” or “I owe my life to my doctor.” Using the word in this sense, we mean that without x there would be no y; but there is no claim that y should give anything to x beyond acknowledgment or thanks.

It has become routine to acknowledge the debt universities owe to Black Americans in this retrospective sense. In 2016 Harvard president and Civil War historian Drew Gilpin Faust was joined by Congressman John Lewis in dedicating a plaque, now affixed to Wadsworth House, honoring four enslaved persons who had once lived there. In 2017 Yale’s authorities belatedly recognized that asking Black students to live in a residence hall named for the chief ideologue of slavery, John C. Calhoun, where a stained-glass window depicted him lording it over a shackled slave, was not very different from, say, asking Jewish students to live in a building named for Joseph Goebbels. Calhoun College has since been renamed in honor of a distinguished alumna, the computer scientist Grace Murray Hopper. But there is a second meaning of the word “owe” that makes one wonder whether such actions, welcome as they are, amount to more than self-soothing gestures. This is the prospective meaning that points to an unmet obligation, as in “I owe you a favor.” It looks to a time when the speaker intends to reciprocate some gift or service received in the past. How and to whom the debt should be paid for the uncompensated labor of generations of Black people is a difficult question—but surely more is required than taking down old names and putting up new ones.

Among the speakers at a recent Harvard conference following the announcement of its reparations fund was Ruth Simmons. She pointed out that

reaching back in history to judge how historical figures acted and judging them in the context of more evolved and enlightened laws and human rights protection can be a treacherous undertaking. It can also consign us to an endless succession of accusations and revisions that detract from the urgency of current behaviors and problems.

The impulse to chastise people in the past can be a distraction not only for Harvard but for any wealthy institution that would move beyond memorialization to ask what, exactly, its future responsibilities within and beyond its own campus are.