Giving back what isn’t yours is a fundamental way of righting a wrong. Admitting mistakes and making amends is another. These are not controversial statements. But when it comes to American history and the fraught question of who profited from slavery and what, if anything, should be done about it now, the question is often framed as “reparations,” and the debate turns acrimonious and, to many, impossible to resolve.
We are a nation that held other humans in bondage through much of our history, and yet we are also a nation of immigrants, people who came here long after the Constitution was amended to ban slavery. To many of these Americans, slavery and its aftereffects are horrible sins of the past but just that — in the past — and neither they nor their ancestors had any part in it, or in any way profited. So to them, “reparations” make no sense. At any rate, how could you possibly know who owes and who is owed? The question is too broad, too vague, too abstract. But now comes a fascinating, deeply reflective study by Harvard University on its own awful history with slavery and discrimination. It is quite specific and because of that, might offer a way forward.
In “Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery,” one of the richest, most revered universities in the world admits that its “very existence depended upon the expropriation of land and labor — land acquired through dispossession of Native territories and labor extracted from enslaved people, including Native Americans and Africans brought to the Americas by force. And, long after the official end of slavery, intellectual clout of influential Harvard leaders and distinguished faculty would be a powerful force justifying the continued subjugation of Black Americans.”
Some specifics? “During the first half of the 19th century, more than a third of the money donated or promised to Harvard by private individuals came from just five men who made their fortunes from slavery and slave-produced commodities.”
The report continues: “Harvard’s donors in this period — and their wealth — were vital to the University’s growth. They allowed the University to hire faculty, support students, develop its infrastructure, and, ultimately, begin to establish itself as a national institution.”
Let’s emphasize two phrases: “just five men” and “a third of the money donated or promised.” Harvard can clearly trace the beginnings of its immense wealth and national influence to particular and substantial connections to profits from slavery. Unlike the often amorphous connection between slavery and socio-economic racial disparities that still exist today, Harvard can plot a clear through-line in its own institutional history from slavery to the here and now.
Harvard has the nation’s largest university endowment, $53.2 billion as of last fall. That sum had risen more than $11 billion in just the last year. No other university’s endowment is even close. How much of today’s endowment, with interest compounding and return on investments, can be traced back to those “five men” and “a third of the money”? Maybe not a third, but it’s not far-fetched to say billions and billions of dollars. So what now?
To Harvard’s credit, one of the report’s recommendations is to “develop enduring partnerships with Black colleges and universities.” It notes that although historically Black colleges and universities offered higher education to Black students when other colleges shut them out, “as a result of the nation’s history of separate and unequal systems of education, HBCUs have often been underfunded and excluded from the benefits that many other universities enjoy.” And yet, they perform a service that Harvard and other elite universities too long neglected. Indeed, in The Plug, a tech newsletter covering people of color, Mirtha Donastorg reports that, “Although they make up just 3 percent of America’s colleges and universities, HBCUs are responsible for more than 20 percent of African American graduates.”
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To correct past wrongs, the Harvard report has several suggestions, including faculty from Harvard and HBCUs taking part in an exchange program and teaching for a year at each other’s institutions, and HBCU students receiving scholarships to attend a year at Harvard. These are all important and well-meaning ideas, and Harvard is committing $100 million to its efforts. But really, those suggestions are just a start.
Harvard has that massive $53 billion endowment. HBCUs do not. Howard University in Washington, D.C., has by far the largest endowment of any HBCU, and it’s only $712.5 million. That is 75 times less than Harvard’s. A data base of 102 HBCUs shows that their total endowment rounds up to $4 billion. Imagine what a small slice of that Harvard endowment money could do for Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach or FAMU (Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University) in Tallahassee.
It is important that Harvard is coming to terms with its history. But consider this: What if, in addition to scholarships and research and exchange programs, Harvard peeled off some of its endowment — the parts which can actually be traced back to profits from slavery — and gifted it to HBCUs? Imagine what a difference that would make for scholarships, faculty and facilities.
Harvard can afford it, the straight line from slavery is clear, and it’s hard to overstate what an example that would set. Eight years ago, Ta-Nehisi Coates made “The Case for Reparations” in The Atlantic, an essay that changed the national conversation on the issue. Many Americans still don’t believe in reparations, but his deeply reported piece made them consider in what situations they might be appropriate — and why. Even with all the steps they’re taking, the Harvard folks could benefit from a thoughtful re-reading of his piece.
Harvard is immensely influential and people pay attention to what it does. Four of the current Supreme Court justices graduated from Harvard Law School as did Gov. Ron DeSantis. In honestly assessing its history and working for a better future, Harvard is doing the right thing. But it could do even more. Harvard has got the money to do it. And we know where some of that money came from.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.