Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery

Earlier today, President Bacow released the Report and Recommendations of the Presidential Committee on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery. Since its formation in 2019, this committee has painstakingly and methodically researched a painful truth: “During the 17th and 18th centuries, the sale and trafficking of human beings—in slavery—and the industries rooted in the labor of enslaved women, men, and children were pervasive around the world, comprised a vital part of the New England economy, and powerfully shaped Harvard University. Harvard leaders, faculty, staff, and benefactors enslaved people, some of whom labored at the University; accrued wealth through the slave trade and slave labor; and defended the institution of slavery.”

We are writing today to urge you to read the report. As members of an academic institution whose motto, Veritas, impels us to seek truth, it is incumbent upon us to acknowledge and understand the ways that Harvard’s strength today was built on human subjugation and the systems—including business—that perpetuated it. It is only with and through truth that we can learn from the tragic mistakes of the past.

The report documents a deeply troubling history. You may need time to process what you learn and to reflect on what it reveals. And, if you are like us, you will have questions. If you want to share your thoughts and feelings, or simply to come together, please note there will be multiple opportunities at both Harvard and HBS to gather and to engage in discussion in the coming days, listed below.

The report may spur a wide range of emotions, from grief to anger to discomfort, and we hope you remember the resources available to you if and when you need support. The HBS Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion is a resource to our full community; additionally, students can reach out to SAS staff (617.495.6087 or sas@hbs.edu) or CAMHS Urgent Care (617.495.5711 weekends and evenings), and staff and faculty can contact the Employee Assistance Program (877.327.4278), with counselors available 24/7.

The committee worked for many months and we are especially grateful to our own Professor Nancy Koehn for her service on it. While the report is the culmination of its effort, we see it as a starting point for our community. Its focus on Harvard’s history, largely up until 1865 when the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution emancipated enslaved people, pre-dates the founding of Harvard Business School in 1908; as a result, HBS is largely absent from its pages. Yet we will need to examine our past, too. It was Carter Glass’s active promulgation of segregationist policies, including poll taxes and literacy requirements that prevented many thousands of Black citizens from voting, that led us to rename the House that bore his name as Cash House. What other buildings and spaces, benefactors and donors, professorships, or other named entities and artifacts should we study to understand their provenance? More broadly, how should we think about the role business played in perpetuating slavery through commerce and trade? How might we, using our unique capabilities in teaching, research, dissemination, and convening, advance the recommendations outlined in the report?

Our pathway forward is one we expect to chart with the active input and engagement of faculty, staff, students, and alumni. We will draw on work we have begun, including the Racial Equity Plan we announced in Fall 2020 and the HBS Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion we established in Fall 2021. We will tap the expertise of our faculty and the scholarship and seminars of the Business History Review. We will leverage the remarkable resources of Baker Library’s archival collections. We will continue to provide opportunities for dialogue and, in particular, explore how we might bring thoughtful discussion into the classroom. As always, we will rely on the strength, dedication, passion, and commitment of our community—ever eager to exemplify the School’s mission and make a difference in the world. Together, although we cannot undo the wrongs of the past, we can work together toward a more just future.

With gratitude,

Angela Crispi

Srikant Datar

Terrill Drake

Jan Hammond

Upcoming events

Tue. 4/26

3-4pm: HBS Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion office hours, Cash House B10 or join the event on Zoom.
4:15pm: Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery Community Conversation for Student Leaders, Lamont Library, 3rd floor, Forum Room 335 (11 Quincy Street).

Wed. 4/27

1-2pm: HBS Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion office hours, Cash House B10 or join the event on Zoom.

Thu. 4/28

9:30-10:30am: HBS Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion office hours, Cash House B10 or join the event on Zoom.
12pm: Harvard Office for Equity, Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging community gathering on the theme, "Reflecting on Harvard's History and Legacy" (learn more and register to participate via Zoom).
4-4:30pm: HBS community gathering, Baker | Bloomberg steps.

Fri. 4/29

9:15am-6pm: Telling the Truth about All This: Reckoning with Slavery and Its Legacies at Harvard and Beyond, Knafel Center (learn more and register to participate via Zoom).

Tue. 5/17

Harvard University all-alumni event with Tomiko Brown-Nagin and Sherri Charleston (details to follow).

This message was distributed to the Harvard Business School community.