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Harvard Leaders and Staff Enslaved 79 People, University Finds

The school said it had benefited from slave-generated wealth and practiced racial discrimination.

The “Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery” report, made public Tuesday, represents a landmark acknowledgment from one of the world’s most prestigious universities of the breadth of its entanglement with slavery, white supremacy and racial injustice for centuries after its 1636 founding. It also shatters any notion that Harvard, by virtue of its location in New England, was insulated from the evils of economic and social systems based on human bondage. The school pledged $100 million to redress the injustices.

Much of Harvard’s record on slavery and racial discrimination has been known for years. But the report sought to deepen that knowledge and tie it all together in an unsparing portrait of institutional failings. Among its findings:

  • Enslaved people of Indigenous and African descent played an integral role in the Harvard community in its first century and a half. The first Harvard schoolmaster, Nathaniel Eaton, enslaved a man known only as “The Moor,” who served the college’s earliest students. Various Harvard presidents, fellows, overseers, stewards and faculty members enslaved more than 70 people until slavery was outlawed in Massachusetts in 1783. The report did not state a precise count. But the university said the total appears to be 79, dozens more than previously known.
  • Five men who made their fortunes from slavery and slave-produced commodities accounted for more than one-third of donations or financial pledges Harvard received from private individuals during the first half of the 19th century. Among them was Benjamin Bussey, a sugar, coffee and cotton merchant who left Harvard an estate of $320,000 when he died in 1842. James Perkins, whose business included Caribbean slave trading, bequeathed $20,000 to Harvard in 1822.
  • Harvard was home to intellectuals who promoted “race science” and eugenics in the 19th and 20th centuries. Their theories and research, including the collection of photographs of enslaved people and nude students, provided crucial support for those seeking to justify white supremacy and other racist ideologies. The university’s museum collections also hold human remains believed to be from Indigenous people and enslaved people of African descent.

The report was produced by a faculty committee convened by Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow in 2019. Many who read the report will find it “disturbing and even shocking,” Bacow said in a statement.

“Harvard benefited from and in some ways perpetuated practices that were profoundly immoral,” Bacow said. “Consequently, 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.”