Harvard announces $100 million plan to offset slavery ties

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Harvard University recently provided details of its historical connection to slavery and announced a $100 million investment funds aimed at studying and treating these links.

The findings were released April 26 in a 130-page report. The university began speaking publicly about its ties to slavery in 2016. That year, the university placed a sign on its campus honoring four slaves who worked for two different Harvard presidents in the 1700s. Harvard President Lawrence Bacow launched the ongoing investigation into the university’s ties to slavery in 2019.

The group of investigators included professors who reviewed the names and stories of people who worked without pay. The committee found that the university and its leaders, including four of the school’s presidents, were enslaving people. The new report, the authors said, adds to work begun in 2007 by Harvard professors and students to show the university’s connection to slavery.

Harvard University is pledging to spend $100 million to research and atone for its close ties to slavery, the school’s president announced Tuesday, April 26, 2022, with plans to identify and support direct descendants of dozens of slaves who worked at the Ivy League Campus. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola, File)

Harvard is the oldest university in the United States. It opened in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1636, when the area was still a British colony. At the time, it was allowed to make people work without pay. The report notes that slavery was common around the world and was an important part of the economy in the Northeastern colonies, and “powerfully shaped Harvard University”. For example, some people who gave money to Harvard early in its history became rich by buying and selling slaves.

The report’s writers said Harvard is now part of the “long and growing list of ‘American universities'”entangled with the history of slavery.

years of slavery

Slaves worked at the university for nearly 150 years, until slavery was made illegal in Massachusetts in 1783. The school’s report says at least 70 blacks and Native Americans were enslaved . This included people who worked on university grounds and in the homes of school leaders.

Additionally, the university, which is the wealthiest in the United States, grew rich by investing in industries such as cotton and sugar cane, which used forced labor. These crops were grown by slaves in the southern United States and the Caribbean islands. Many buildings at Harvard are named after people who owned other people.

The report notes that Harvard profited from the idea that slavery in the United States was centered in the American South. In fact, the report says, the economy in the Northeastern colonies”flourishedbecause of their connection to slavery and companies that used forced labor.

Researchers said there were probably more than 70 enslaved people, but only found 70 names. They added that some of the slaves were Native Americans. Many slaves were only known by their first names, which included: Cesar, Dinah, Delia, Renty, and Venus.

Funds to heal the wounds

The statue of John Harvard, founder of Harvard College, is seen in Harvard Yard, Wednesday, April 27, 2022, on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.  In Harvard's pledge to atone for its ties to slavery, it identified dozens of people who were enslaved by the university's early leaders and faculty.  (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

The statue of John Harvard, founder of Harvard College, is seen in Harvard Yard, Wednesday, April 27, 2022, on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. In Harvard’s pledge to atone for its ties to slavery, it identified dozens of people who were enslaved by the university’s early leaders and faculty. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Bacow announced the $100 million fund to deal with what he called the “corrosive the effects of [slavery] about individuals, about Harvard, and about our society. The money will be used to compensate for the mistreatment of people who worked for the university, but it will not be paid directly to living members of the Harvard slave family.

The report says the university should allow select students from historically black colleges and universities to study at Harvard for one year at a time.

He also said that the school should make education more accessible to descent of slaves in the southern United States and the Caribbean region. Additionally, the authors said that Harvard should provide educational programs for Native American tribesmen in the northeastern United States.

“Disturbing” Ideas

The report says that even after slavery became illegal, some university professors taught racial theories about why whites were better than blacks. Some professors have done studies on race that scholars have linked to the policies of the leaders of Nazi Germany. The report called some of this work, which included photographing black people without clothes and measuring their bodies, as “abusive”.

Bacow called the findings “disturbing and shocking” and said that the ideas allowed deeply “immoral” Activities.

A headstone marks the grave of "Cicely"a 15 year old "negro servant" of the Reverend William Brattle, treasurer of Harvard College, at the Old Burying Ground just outside Harvard Yard, Wednesday, April 27, 2022, in Cambridge, Mass.  (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

A headstone marks the grave of ‘Cicely’, a 15-year-old ‘Negro servant’ of the Reverend William Brattle, Treasurer of Harvard College, at the Old Burying Ground just outside Harvard Yard, Wednesday, April 27, 2022, in Cambridge , Mass. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

In more modern times, the report notes, the university was slow to make education and work available to black people. Between the 1890s and the 1940s, only about three black men a year attended college. By 1960, the number had risen to only nine in the freshman class.

Compensate for slavery

The report says the university should spend money to make up for the past, but doesn’t say clearly that the school should give money to the descendants of slaves who worked at Harvard. Payments to compensate for past abuse are sometimes called reparations. Instead, Harvard said it would right its wrongs through “teaching, research, and service.”

Other universities are doing similar things.

At Georgetown University in Washington, DC, the school tries to raise $400,000 a year to give to the descendants of slaves sold by the school. At Princeton University in New Jersey, the School of Religion has launched a $27 million fund to compensate for the enslavement of people. And the University of Virginia, founded by US President Thomas Jefferson, has established scholarships for living family members of those it enslaved.

Roberta Wolff, a descendant of Tony, Cuba and Darby Vassall who were enslaved by Harvard benefactors during the institution's early decades, poses on the porch of her family home, Wednesday, April 27, 2022, in Bellingham , Mass.  (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Roberta Wolff, a descendant of Tony, Cuba and Darby Vassall who were enslaved by Harvard benefactors during the institution’s early decades, poses on the porch of her family home, Wednesday, April 27, 2022, in Bellingham , Mass. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

However, some critics say these universities should do more or they are not delivering on their promises. Now that Harvard has released its report, education officials will want to see how the $100 million is being spent and if it makes a difference.

In the report, Bacow noted that Harvard is “far from perfect” but is still trying to “do better.” The university’s president said Harvard is committed to following the recommendations and “to kiss the challenges ahead of us.

I’m Dan Friedell and I’m Jill Robbins

Dan Friedell adapted this story for VOA Learning English based on Associated Press reporting and the Harvard report.

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words in this story

funds – nm a sum of money that is set aside for a specific purpose

entangle -v. get involved in a confusing and difficult situation

prosper – v. successfully grow and develop

corrosive– adj. to weaken and damage someone or something

descending – not. the children of a group of people who lived in the past

disturbing –adj. disturbing or upsetting

immoral –adj. not morally good or just

to kiss – v. accept something

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