Conference Encourages Reparations for Harvard's Ties to Slavery

A conference on universities and slavery brought Harvard’s extensive and long-obscured historical connections to slavery into sharp relief Friday, with some participants encouraging the University to consider monetary reparations.

The conference, entitled “Universities and Slavery: Bound By History” and sponsored by the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, is the latest in a series of efforts Harvard has taken to confront its ties to slavery. A year in the making, the daylong event featured historians and representatives from several universities, and a keynote address by The Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. University President Drew G. Faust announced plans for the conference in March 2016.

In her opening remarks, Faust called slavery “an aspect of Harvard’s past that has been rarely acknowledged and poorly understood.”

“Harvard was directly complicit in slavery from the College’s earliest days in the 17th century,” Faust said. “This history and its legacy have shaped our institution in ways we have yet to fully understand. Today’s conference is intended to help us explore parts of the past that have remained all but invisible.”

Repeatedly describing slavery and racial discrimination that arose from it as “plunder” in his keynote address, Coates urged attendees to recognize the scope of slavery and the “systems of plunder that haunt us to this very day.”

Coates, a famous proponent of monetary reparations, laid out that case for attendees Friday, arguing that progress on racial issues requires institutions to repay their debts to enslaved people.

“I think every single one of these universities needs to make reparations,” he said to wide applause. “I don’t know how you get around that, I just don’t. I don’t know how you conduct research that shows that your very existence is rooted in a great crime, and just say ‘well,’ shrug—and maybe at best say ‘I’m sorry’—and you walk away. And I think you need to use the language of ‘reparation.’ I think it’s very, very important to actually say that word, to acknowledge that something was done in these institutions.”

History professor Sven Beckert, who has previously investigated Harvard’s ties to slavery, opened a panel Friday afternoon by reiterating this message.

“We cannot successfully move forward as a university, as a nation, or as citizens, without acknowledging this history, and making it important to the understanding of our present,” Beckert said. “And to be meaningful, that acknowledgement will have to have economic and political consequences; it cannot be purely symbolic or rhetorical.”

In a question-and-answer session in the afternoon, an audience member asked Beckert if he supports Harvard paying reparations. Read more

Source: The Harvard Crimson