Sunday, March 05, 2017

Letter from Sven Beckert, Laird Bell Professor of History

In the fall of 2007, four Harvard undergraduate students came together in a seminar room to solve a local, but nonetheless significant historical mystery: to research the historical connections between Harvard University and slavery. Inspired by Ruth Simmon’s path-breaking work at Brown University, the seminar’s goal was to gain a better understanding of the history of the institution in which we were learning and teaching, and to bring closer to home one of the greatest issue of American history: slavery. But no one sitting in that room on that beautiful late summer day had any idea what we would find. With much of the literature on Harvard’s history silent on slavery, it was unclear if Harvard had any links to slavery, and, if so, what they were.
As the story that follows makes abundantly clear, the students’ curiosity in the face of the unknown and their impressive mastery of the arts of historical detection were rewarded with a treasure trove of findings, many of them disconcerting. The 32 students who participated in this initial and three subsequent seminars scoured Harvard’s archival records, drew countless published volumes from its library stacks, made careful inspections of our neighboring colonial graveyards, and carefully inspected Harvard’s oldest buildings. Much of what they found was surprising: Harvard presidents who brought slaves to live with them on campus, significant endowments drawn from the exploitation of slave labor, Harvard’s administration and most of its faculty favoring the suppression of public debates on slavery. A quest that began with fears of finding nothing ended with a new question—how was it that the university had failed for so long to engage with this elephantine aspect of its history?
The pages of Harvard and Slavery: Seeking a Forgotten History summarize some of the findings of the students’ research. The findings show that the history of slavery is also local history: Harvard, like most institutions in the United States whose history stretches back to before 1865, had the labor, products, and profits of slavery woven into its very fabric. But perhaps the most important lesson we learned in the seminars was that there is yet so much more to find out. We only understand some small parts of the story, and it will be to future generations of student researchers and others to explore this history.
Still, now is the moment to share some of our findings with the larger community. We want to inspire others to dig deeper into this history, but even more so we want to encourage a broader debate on what this history means for us today. While the students could not agree on what acts of memorialization, remembrance, or restitution would be appropriate responses for Harvard, they all agreed that a broader community needs to be drawn into this discussion. It is the community as a whole that needs to decide what needs to be done.
I could not have embarked upon this project without the support of many people. First, I want to publicly thank the amazing group of Harvard students whose dedication and enthusiasm drove this project forward from start to finish. Teaching fellows Kathryn Boodry and Katherine Stevens, who are themselves writing important dissertations on the history of slavery, were the best possible colleagues: engaged, opinionated, and ever giving of their time to help the students with their research. With enormous energy and dedication, co-author Katherine Stevens took an important role in conceptualizing, writing and producing this publication. Archivists and librarians at Harvard and elsewhere went out of their way to help us trace obscure sources on a hidden history. Matthew Corcoran, Caitlin Hopkins, Jesse Halvorsen and Erin Wells supported in various ways the publishing of the students’ research. My colleague Evelyn Higginbotham has been a much-needed participant observer all along, and I thank her for her support. And, last but not least, a big “thank you” to Harvard President Drew Faust for sponsoring this publication, engaging with our efforts along the way, and encouraging yet deeper consideration of the implications of our students’ research.
Sven Beckert
Cambridge, September 2011

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