Harvard University details its ties to slavery and promises a reckoning

Correction: This segment incorrectly identified Harvard as America's oldest university. While Harvard University is the country's oldest institution of higher education, the University of Pennsylvania is the first university in the U.S. to offer both graduate and undergraduate studies. We regret the error.

America’s oldest institution of higher education, Harvard University, is beginning to come to terms with its own history and role in slavery. The school is out with a new report detailing its extensive entanglement and legacy. Tomiko Brown-Nagin, dean of the Harvard Radcliffe Institute, joins Jeffrey Brown to discuss.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    America's oldest university, Harvard, is beginning to come to terms with its own history and role in slavery. The school is out with a new report detailing its extensive entanglement and legacy.

    Jeffrey Brown has the details as part of our ongoing reporting Race Matters.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The ties to slavery were deep, the signs in some cases hiding in plain sight.

    Among the findings in the 134-page report conducted by Harvard faculty, Harvard presidents, faculty, and staff enslaved more than 70 people in the 17th and 18th centuries, some of whom labored on campus.

    Harvard continued to benefit from donations from plantation owners and other trade involving slave labor. It also details how Harvard's longest-serving president, Charles William Eliot, and other prominent faculty members strongly promoted eugenics, a racist idea that selective breeding is needed to purify the human race.

    In response to these and many other findings, the university has now pledged $100 million in part to create an endowed Legacy of Slavery Fund.

    For more, I'm joined by Tomiko Brown-Nagin. She's dean of the Harvard Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and she chaired the committee report.

    Thank you for joining us.

    There are many specifics here in this report, but what's the key for you? Is it how integral slavery was in the life and history of Harvard?

  • Tomiko Brown-Nagin, Dean, Harvard Radcliffe Institute:

    I would say so.

    We documented both direct ownership or enslavement of human beings. We documented financial ties to the slave trade and to slave economies, and, finally, the intellectual production of ideologies that supported slavery, segregation and white supremacy.

    And so I would say the breadth and depth of the findings are significant. And, in particular, the direct ownership of more than 70 human beings was more than I would have anticipated.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Is there any one specific example that really surprised or even shocked you?

  • Tomiko Brown-Nagin:

    Well, I wouldn't say shocked or surprised me, Jeffrey.

    I would say that the reality of enslaved people being on campus, feeding our students, serving Harvard presidents is quite remarkable.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    What was an important theme for you that came from this report?

  • Tomiko Brown-Nagin:


    Well, I'm a historian, a legal historian of the civil rights movement. And it was important to me and the committee to lift up the history of resistance to inequality that is personified by graduates of Harvard, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, who founded — helped to found the Niagara Movement and the NAACP, and, of course, was a towering intellectual figure.

    And another I might cite is Charles Hamilton Houston, who was known as the man who killed Jim Crow because of his civil rights lawyering that laid the groundwork for Brown vs. Board of Education. Those figures are vitally important to understand as representatives of Harvard as well.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    This new fund of $100 million, it's a lot of money, but what exactly is it for? What do you see it doing?

  • Tomiko Brown-Nagin:


    It is a significant financial commitment. And we're pleased that the university has established this fund that is meant to address the harms of slavery in — locally, nationally and in the Caribbean through leveraging its expertise in education.

    Of course, access to educational opportunities is a known driver of social mobility, which explains our leading there and, of course, is consistent with our mission. In addition, we will seek to establish a public memorial to allow people on and off campus, visitors to campus to engage with this history.

    We have committed to supporting new and sustained partnerships with historically Black colleges and tribal colleges. And, also, we recommended as a committee, and the university will hold itself accountable by establishing reporting procedures, an implementation committee that is led by one of the world's authorities on human rights and seeking justice, Martha Minow.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It is notably not going toward individual reparations, though. That continues to be such a hot topic. Why not?

  • Tomiko Brown-Nagin:

    Well, I think it's important to focus on the remedies that the committee did endorse.

    There are a lot of ways to characterize these types of remedies. And I think where we have landed are on very meaningful ways of see seeking to address the harms of slavery with financial support established in perpetuity.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And, finally, briefly, where do you see now Harvard and American universities more generally in addressing and redressing this past?

  • Tomiko Brown-Nagin:

    A number of universities have documented their ties to slavery and established scholarships, memorials, and in many other ways have begun to address those ties to slavery.

    There are thousands of American universities north and south. And so there certainly is an opportunity for other universities to engage their entanglements with slavery as well, and also the lingering effects of slavery into the 20th century.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All right, Tomiko Brown-Nagin, thank you very much.

  • Tomiko Brown-Nagin:

    Thank you for having me.

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