Skip to main content

Recognizing the Legacy of Slavery at Harvard and Beyond

A Message from the Dean

Earlier today, President Bacow announced the release of a deeply significant study on the legacy of slavery at Harvard. The Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery report provides clear documentation of the many ways Harvard has profited from the exploitation of enslaved people. To put it most simply, as stated in the accompanying film, "the proceeds from slavery helped Harvard become the Harvard we know today." For some, the long list of abhorrent acts, both in terms of the direct profiting from slavery and the advancement of racist “scholarship,” is not shocking. However, that does not make the findings any less painful.

May we honor the memory of all the enslaved women, men, and children whose labor generated wealth that helped to create the Harvard we know today. Additionally, let us acknowledge that Harvard was built on and still exists on lands taken from Indigenous peoples. What we benefit from today, as members of the Harvard community, came at the expense of people who had no choice and who were never expected to benefit from this or other educational institutions. It is our responsibility to learn, reflect upon, and recognize these incredible sacrifices. We must also realize that this is not just about Harvard or the United States. Countries around the world share the legacy of either profiting from or being the victim of the enslavement and colonial pursuits and policies that have governed the last several centuries; the inequities we see today are often connected to histories of exploitation, discrimination, and marginalization.

Education and the Legacy of Slavery

Perhaps most relevant for us as educators and education advocates is how the legacy of slavery is embedded in our own field, from debates about who should be educated and who is capable of learning to persistent inequities that stem from a history of structural racism and unequal resources and treatment. There is a reason why “all means all” is such a powerful statement — it is counter to a narrative that existed in education for so long that not all students could excel. And lest we believe discriminatory practices like the segregation of schools are ancient history, take note that Ruby Bridges, the first African American student to integrate an elementary school in the South, is only 67 years old. We continue to contend with important differences in treatment by race in a host of educational practices, such as disciplinary policy.

Emphasizing the need to confront the hard facts of history is also especially relevant right now given much larger debates in this country about the teaching of topics that some view as controversial. From the attack on Critical Race Theory to what some have called the "Don’t Say Gay" law in Florida and the banning of books in some school districts, there is a movement to limit what teachers can teach. However, shielding students from uncomfortable ideas isn’t education. But just as important as it is to stand firm on that fact, we must also make sure that we ourselves are doing the work to grapple with topics and issues that can be difficult. If our history is forgotten or unacknowledged, we will not come to understand just how deeply embedded inequality is in our society, and we will fail to address the persistent problems that motivated so many of us to enter the field of education.  

Reflecting Together and Looking Ahead at HGSE

I want to commend my friend, Tomiko Brown-Nagin, Dean of the Harvard Radcliffe Institute, and the rest of the Presidential Committee on Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery for their outstanding work. Over many months, they wrestled with a complex set of issues, and importantly, came together to chart a course forward. Check out the new website Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery to read the full report and recommendations.

I especially want to recognize the contributions of Meira Levinson, Juliana W. and William Foss Thompson Professor of Education and Society at HGSE. Beyond her work as a committee member, Meira and her students developed a discussion guide to accompany the film and several case studies that can help us process the findings, and importantly, consider the implications and next steps.

The report is only the beginning of a much longer process. Let us first take time to read, reflect, and discuss the findings and begin to consider the implications. To aid in this effort, HGSE has planned a series of events to gather and grapple with the report together. Please see below for a list of opportunities. These activities are in addition to events that will be hosted by the University Office for Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging (OEDIB), also noted below.

Looking ahead, I want to highlight the emphasis in the report on remedies — "visible, lasting, grounded" remedies — to "address the harms of slavery and its legacies, many of which still reverberate today, affecting descendants of slavery in the community and indeed the nation" (p. 57). Harvard is not the first and certainly not the only institution culpable for the abuses of the past, but it has substantial intellectual and financial resources that could be directed in important ways "in the pursuit of meaningful repair." HGSE will be an active part of this process. Several of the recommendations relate to ongoing work at HGSE and others are opportunities for us to contribute our expertise and skills in new ways. In the months ahead, I hope you will lend your support to the implementation committee, which will be chaired by Martha Minow, the 300th Anniversary University Professor and former Dean of the Harvard Law School; she is also proudly an HGSE alumna (Ed.M.’76). Meira will also be on the committee, and we look forward to expanding our support of local schools and universities, partnerships with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), and initiatives to advance educational opportunity for descendant and Native communities.

Ultimately, the goal of this work is to build a better future based on our deeper understanding and honest confrontation of the past. I look forward to doing this incredibly important work with you.

All best wishes,

Bridget Terry Long, Ph.D.
Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education
Saris Professor of Education and Economics

Related Articles