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Will Harvard’s New President Act to Confront the University’s Legacy of Slavery?

Harvard has historically fought tooth and nail to retain control over the images of enslaved people in its possession.

Claudine Gay speaks after being appointed Harvard University's next president and the first Black leader in the history of the nation's oldest college.

Standin’ at the crossroad, I tried to flag a ride
Didn’t nobody seem to know me, everybody pass me by

Cross Road Blues (Take 2), Robert Johnson

Harvard University is recognized as one of the world’s leading academic institutions and alma mater to renowned figures in virtually every aspect of American life. Founded in 1636, the school’s official website proudly declares itself “the oldest corporation in the Western Hemisphere.” Not only the oldest, but one of the wealthiest, with an estimated endowment of $53 billion, a sum larger than the GDP of 110 of the 190 countries in the world.

Today, the corporation finds itself at a crossroads.

In April 2022, Harvard released its “Report of the Presidential Committee on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery,” a document filled with promises and pledges, and accompanied by a flashy video. University President Lawrence Bacow insisted, “We bear a moral responsibility … to address the persistent and corrosive effects of those historical practices on individuals, on Harvard, and on our society.”

The report opens by invoking its motto:

Harvard’s motto, Veritas, inscribed on gates, doorways, and sculptures all over campus, demands of us truth. This report … advances our quest for truth through scholarship about the University’s historic ties to slavery — direct, financial, and intellectual.

The report concludes with the heady, if peculiar pledge: “We can renew our commitment to Veritas, and imbue it with deeper meaning.”

The stain of slavery is broad and deep, and the university’s pledge of a $100 million commitment, a small fraction of its endowment, to address its past is a significant start. The university pledges to increase educational opportunities for descendants of enslaved persons, improved links to historically Black colleges and universities, as well as an “imposing physical memorial” to those who were enslaved. But the work of rebuilding cannot be a conventional academic exercise with results printed, bound and placed on a shelf, or in a slide show, short movie, conference proceeding or a cosponsored museum exhibit.

Veritas?

There is one individual, Tamara Lanier, who has flagged the university but, like Robert Johnson at the crossroads, has been passed by.

In 1977, the university discovered daguerreotypes (images) of enslaved Africans who had been photographed at the behest of 19th-century Harvard scientist Louis Agassiz. Among those images captured appears Renty Taylor. He stands before the camera, his arms by his side, his body seemingly emaciated in what a New York Times article described as one “of history’s cruelest, most contentious images.”

While Agassiz commissioned the image as part of an effort to provide scientific proof of the inferiority of Africans, and thus rationalize the evil of U.S. slavery, Renty stares back at the camera — and hence at all of us — his eyes ablaze with defiance and human dignity.

Based on the oral history passed down for generations and her own research, Lanier recognized the man in the photo as Papa Renty, her great-great-great grandfather. Renty may have been only a specimen to Agassiz, but he was an actual ancestor to Lanier, who grew up listening to stories that put the flesh of family and personhood on those bones.

Lanier began to seek control of the images from the university in 2011 by direct correspondence with then-President Drew Faust. Dissatisfied with the school’s non-responsiveness over the years, she filed a suit in March 2019. The suit was supported by 43 descendants of Agassiz, who argued that turning the images over to Lanier would “begin to make amends … for the white supremacy theory Agassiz espoused.”

The initial ruling in the case affirmed Harvard’s claim of ownership, but Lanier appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. Shortly after the release of Harvard’s report, on June 23, 2022, the high court upheld the initial ruling on ownership, but found that the university put “itself and its agenda before any effort to reckon with its past or make amends in the present.” The court remanded the case to the lower court, advising Lanier “to incorporate a claim of reckless infliction of emotional distress.”

Despite the University’s public posturing about healing the legacy of slavery, Harvard has acted very much like a corporation defending what it considers its property. It fails to acknowledge the differences between possession and ownership, the law and justice, or abstract truth and honest human emotion. Indeed, in December 2022, the university sought to dismiss the remanded case.

At the Crossroads

I am the brother of a Radcliffe and Harvard Business School graduate, my wife and I hold advanced degrees from the university, and I recently retired as director of a research institute at Harvard Law School. I write as a deeply concerned member of the Harvard community.

The Lanier case predates Harvard’s recent reckoning (although not its awareness of its relationship to American slavery), and while the university’s 2022 report spends some time on Agassiz and the daguerreotypes, the 132-page document, replete with over 1,000 footnotes spanning 50 of those pages, makes no mention of either Lanier or her claim. Rather than imbuing Veritas with new meaning, the failure to mention the Lanier case trades in partial truths.

Truth is, after all, such a lofty term. It sets one both above and apart from the world. The university might instead aspire to a more grounded domain: communitas. It might seek to celebrate community, to emphasize sharing and common experience over hierarchy; to encourage and facilitate membership and participation for all. And, most importantly, to recognize and celebrate itself as part of a larger, more vibrant and promising community.

With the election of Claudine Gay, current dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, to the presidency of the university, Harvard may make strides in this direction. Gay, the daughter of Haitian immigrants and the first person of color elected to the presidency, insisted Harvard does not “exist outside of society, but as part of it, and that means that Harvard has a duty to … engage and be in service to the world.” She also spoke of “the bold agenda of reckoning and repair inspired by” the university report on slavery.

The Harvard website cites Harvard Law School alumnus Charles Hamilton Houston as “The Man Who Killed Jim Crow” and part of a “Legacy of African American Resistance … that today’s Harvard students inherit.” Houston, the first Black elected to the editorial board of the Harvard Law Review, was the architect of the legal strategy for the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision and mentor to many of the attorneys who won the case following his untimely death in 1950. Notably absent from its proud and self-congratulatory remembrances, however, is Houston’s pitiless but sadly timeless lament that, “A lawyer is either a social engineer or a parasite upon society.”

This is the continuum against which we must all measure ourselves and our institutions. So it is for the Harvard Corporation. In today’s parlance, Harvard could be said to have become “woke” by documenting its past. But until it can radically and convincingly change its posture toward the claim of Tamara Lanier, its grander promises seem more like sleepwalking.

As she enters the crossroad and seeks to chart a new course for the university, President Gay might begin by accepting Lanier’s call.

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