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Slavery Armageddon: Harvard versus Tucker

Eighteenth-century Harvard presidents—and slaveowners—Edward Holyoke (left) and Benjamin Wadsworth (Painting of Edward Holyoke by John Singleton Copley/Harvard Art Museums; painting of Benjamin Wadsworth in the public domain)

Slavery at Harvard is in the news. The announcement of a $100 million fund made all the major newspapers and cable news outlets. The Harvard-hosted hybrid conference following the announcement “Telling the Truth about All This: Reckoning with Slavery and Its Legacies at Harvard and Beyond,” on April 29, 2022, received less coverage. That conference also is important in chartering the future course Harvard may take. While there is insufficient space here to review the proceedings of the conference, there are some observations which can be made about Harvard’s position within the current slavery debates.

To start with, the Harvard conference can be put in context. It followed related Yale conferences:

Yale and Slavery in Historical Perspective, October 28-30, 2021
Legacies of Slavery: Past, Present & Future, April 5, 2022

and preceded the Brown conference:

Reparations Conference by The Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice at Brown University, May 5, 2022.

Truth be told, it is hard to keep up with these Ivy League conferences. And thanks to Zoom, it is now possible attend all of them at no cost and without leaving home.

Sticking to the Harvard conference in this blog, what was the main takeaway from that conference?

For me, it is that IT WAS A VERY IMPORTANT CONFERENCE AT HARVARD. Certainly, Harvard is a globally prestigious institution. Its words and actions carry weight. And in case you were not sure about that, speaker after speaker reminded the audience that this WAS A VERY IMPORTANT CONFERENCE and it was being held at HARVARD. Even online, you could feel the goodness radiating from the participants and the audience as they were part of a VERY IMPORTANT CONFERENCE AT HARVARD.

So is Harvard ready for a primetime leadership role?


According to the Harvard report, slavery there from the college’s founding in 1636 to the abolition of slavery in the state of Massachusetts in 1783 included 70 people. What is your first reaction to the number 70 over 147 years? Does it seem like a lot? 70 people over 147 years is not a shock and awe number. About the same number of Ukrainians can be killed in a single Russian artillery strike on a school, a hospital, or a theater. I mention these figures because numbers matter and affect perceptions.

For example, Peniel E. Joseph, Barbara Jordan Chair in ethics and political values and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, the number was 70 too many:

The anguish that I felt reading those names an parts of their stories was magnified as I pondered the gaps in the narrative, the information we don’t have about them. I ache for that knowledge, even as I understood this would cause me (and others) more pain (Opinion: Why Harvard’s report demands our attention, CNN 4/29/22 written following the conference).

However despite the personal anguish he felt, Harvard itself undermined the impact of the extent of slavery at the college.

During the five decades between 1890 and 1940, approximately 160 Blacks attended Harvard College, or an average of about three per year, 30 per decade.

The figure of 160 over fifty years projects to 480 over 150 years. So the student/slave ratio is 70/480 over roughly the same time periods. If the admission number is used to show the racism due to a low number of students, then the implication is the number 70, barely 1/7 as much, is indicative of a much smaller problem. These differences in the use of numbers to deliver a message is the type of question Harvard could be asked to explain.

Speaking of admissions at Harvard, the full story of admissions should bring the issue of race to the present. In 2014, the organization Students for Fair Admissions brought a lawsuit against Harvard concerning discrimination against Asian Americans and the affirmative action program in Harvard University’s student admissions process. In January 2022, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and consolidated it with a similar case related to admissions practices at the University of North Carolina. This may not be the same Supreme Court that is in the process of ruling on abortion. By the 2022-2023 term, Justice Breyer will have stepped down and his replacement Ketanji Brown Jackson, will recuse herself from the case because she is on the Harvard Board of Overseers.

So again if Harvard wants to take a leadership position on race, it might want to include the issue of admissions policies today.


Another issue to be discussed is the relation of the slave-colleges to the surrounding community. Some colleges are located in college towns. This means just as a factory may have once dominated a particular community, so a college may be the major game in town. Other times a college may be part of a larger community.

For example, the Yale conference description stated:

The conference will engage the Yale and New Haven communities as well as the national context of reckoning with the past.

Indeed, one session was devoted to “The Negro College Story,” the failed attempt in 1831 to create what would have been the first HBCU in the United States if not the world. At the end of the conference Willie Jennings, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and Africana Studies, Yale Divinity School, said (in paraphrase): What Yale needs to do right now is to make New Haven a partner collaborator. Don’t try to change the world, start at home. Yale needs to see New Haven differently.

The Brown conference also included the local community. Entire sessions were devoted to the city of Providence including with municipal personnel. These people have done a deep dive into the history of Providence as well as to the demographic information of the city over the past few decades. The emphasis has shifted from not simply slavery in the colonial era but to the destruction of communities involving “Negro removal” by white people in the 20th century. Here one may witness the importance of white racism separate to or in addition to slavery which had been abolished in an unenforced law in 1652 and then was phased out following the Gradual Emancipation Act in 1784.

At some point Harvard will have a decision to make about post-slavery racism beyond the college campus and into the surrounding community be it Cambridge and/or Boston. It is under no obligation to do so but it is something to consider.


Note: According to USA Today and CNN, the Harvard report covered slavery in “the 17th and 18 centuries.” According to The New York Times article, the time period was the 16th and 17th centuries.

1619 – Beginning in 2019, another globally-prominent institution, The New York Times, made 1619 the center of national discourse about the slavery and the origins of the Unites States. The firestorm unleashed by the newspaper continues to rage today as multiple states debate and/or pass legislation affecting the history curriculum. What is the relationship of slavery in Harvard in 1636 to the events in 1619 in Virginia? Did Harvard draw on the Virginia precedents? Did it goes its own way?  Harvard has an opportunity in understanding 1636 to put it and 1619 in context.

1783 – On May 4, 2022, Humanities New York (HNY) held a Community Conversation: Land, Liberty, and Loss based on the article “A Forgotten Black Founding Father: Why I’ve made it my mission to teach others about Prince Hall,” by Danielle Allen, the James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard. The subject was the actions of this unsung hero in having slavery abolished in the state. A key was the words “men are born free and equal” which had migrated from the Declaration of Independence to the 1780 Massachusetts State Constitution. But if the American Revolution really was fought to preserve slavery, how did its very words become part of the successful effort to abolish it in Massachusetts? When Harvard President Bacow says of slavery, “It was embedded in the fabric and the institutions of the North, and it remained legal in Massachusetts until the Supreme Judicial Court ruled it unconstitutional in 1783” it is not enough. Harvard has an opportunity to lead a national discussion on how the Declaration of Independence was used to abolish slavery.


The Harvard report names Harvard-affiliated people who owned people. Their names are on buildings, monuments, and memorials throughout the campus. There was a major commotion back in 2016 over the seal of the Harvard Law School. It bore the crest of the former slave-owning Royall family. One of the presentations (part of which I missed) at the conference was by Kyera Singleton, executive director, Royall House and Slave Quarters. The name game and cancelling are part of the national discourse now. Harvard will be facing decisions about multiple individuals and their physical presence on the campus. At this point, no one knows how that process will work out. However it does proceed, those actions and/or inactions will become part of the national discourse as well with implications for similar issues elsewhere. In this regard, Harvard will become a media focal point in the culture wars.

President Bacow said, “The report makes plain that slavery in America was by no means confined to the South.” Does that mean Harvard will issue an apology to Confederates on behalf of the northerners who said slavery was a “southern” problem?

Peniel Joseph wrote:

Still the relentless optimist in me sees this report as an opportunity to have a thoughtful, mature and necessary push toward national reparations for racial slavery…Harvard has, in its own small and significant way, with its willingness to face the most unseemly and dishonorable parts of its past, taken meaningful steps toward a path of healing. We can only build a new story of America – our past, present, and future – by confronting how we arrived at this moment together.

The report written within the cloisters of the college represents the easy part of that effort. The real challenge will occur when Harvard enters the national political arena on slavery and racism whether it wants to or not.

The Myth of No Slavery in the North: Cancel Harvard and Yale

American history is partially defined by myths. These are the stories we well about our country that are true in the mind of the storyteller but not necessarily independent of that person. These stories have a life of their own. They may become embedded in the texts we use to teach. They may be true to us but not to someone else. To face the truth of the falsity of a myth that we believe to be true is a challenge often avoided. And when people in the past yet alone the present act on the basis of the myth, then drawing the line between myth and reality is even more difficult.

The prominent myths of the American culture – including one new one – are:

1. the myth of the Empty Land
2. the myth of Stolen from Africa
3. the myth of no slavery in the North
4. the myth of the Lost Cause
5. the myth of the Stolen Election.

These myths should not be dismissed since they are not true. They are true in the minds of the people who believe in them and who act on the basis of them. Therefore they have to be taken seriously.


On April 26, 2022, Lawrence S. Bacow, president of Harvard University, and Tomiko Brown-Nagin, chair of the Presidential Initiative on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery and dean of the Harvard Radcliffe Institute, publicly challenged the myth of no slavery in the North in a press release.

Contrary to popular narratives, during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, slavery was fundamental to New England’s economy. It was legal in Massachusetts, where Harvard is based, until 1783. By that time, Harvard was almost 150 years old.

To be fair, Harvard acknowledges that it is not the first to address the subject of slavery in the North.

Harvard is certainly not the first institution of higher learning to acknowledge these truths. Others in the United States and around the globe have documented their own ties to slavery. More than 90 institutions have joined the Universities Studying Slavery consortium, anchored at the University of Virginia, whose mission is to share best practices for addressing racism and human bondage in our histories.

Nor is this legacy unique to universities. In recent years, historians have documented that American presidents, members of Congress, U.S. Supreme Court justices and leading companies have significant ties to slavery.

Still, with all due respect to Brown which pioneered the collegiate investigation in 2003 and the Jesuits of Georgetown who have committed $100 million to the descendants, Harvard does command a special place of honor as the oldest, wealthiest, and most prestigious college in the country. Its name is a global brand.


According to the press release, slavery at Harvard existed on three levels:

1. slavery on the campus itself which would have ended in 1783 when Massachusetts abolished slavery
2. slavery in the households of people affiliated with Harvard which also would have ended in 1783 when Massachusetts abolished slavery
3. slavery in the lands in which Harvard the institution and the people who ran Harvard did business with especially in the South and the West Indies – this connection lasted as long as slavery remained legal in those lands (Juneteenth for the South) or Harvard continued to do business with them.

We now know that Harvard leaders, faculty and staff enslaved more than 70 people of African and Native American descent. Some of these enslaved people labored at and for the university, including in the households of Harvard presidents.

Harvard’s ties to slavery and its legacies run deeper still: The labor of enslaved people enriched donors to the university, helping Harvard expand its infrastructure, grow its faculty and student body, and build its reputation. And prominent Harvard leaders and professors defended slavery, justified segregation, and promoted racial hierarchy and discrimination.

Thus a key point which Harvard enunciates is that just because you cannot see slavery in your home, community, state, or country today, does not mean you are not connected to it. Furthermore, when slavery ends, that does not mean the consequences of slavery have ended. People in the present can reap the benefits of slavery in the past even when they have nothing directly to do with it or are even aware that it existed.

Harvard is putting its money where its mouth is. It is not just talking the talk, it is walking the walk.

Harvard pledges to draw on its expertise in education to confront continuing inequities — tangible legacies of slavery — affecting communities in the United States and in the Caribbean, to which New England’s slavery economies were closely tied. We will fund this work with a commitment of $100 million, including an endowment to support these efforts in perpetuity.

Harvard states that it is open on how to proceed.

Yet we believe there are many paths forward for institutions implicated in slavery. And we invite dialogue — and civil, informed debate — about this vital work.
All American institutions have before them the opportunity to participate in a bold reimagining of our nation, characterized by investment in human potential and a renewed commitment to the ideals of our nation’s founding.

However, the very press release suggests why the civil, informed dialogue Harvard seeks will only transpire when it is preaching or speaking to the choir. This “opportunity” to dialogue easily could follow the same path as the weaponized New York Times 1619 Project and further divide the country and for the same reasons.


The press release also reveals the institution founded by Puritans in 1636 still exists. It does so not because people running Harvard today are members of the Congregational Church. It does so in the values to which it subscribes as shown in the language used in the press release.

Slavery’s legacies persist in racial disparities in education, health, employment, income, wealth and the criminal justice system. The question before us now is how best to reckon with these realities and atone for our past. [bold added]

In an earlier blog “Enslaved” versus “Slave”: Yale, Virginia, and New Jersey (November 4, 2021) following the “Yale and Slavery in Historical Perspective Conference,” Oct. 28-30, 2021,

I wrote:


During the Yale conference on slavery, three speakers mentioned the need to atone for Yale’s history of slavery.

“Yale should acknowledge, engage, atone, and educate.”
“Yale should use its financial resources to repair and atone.”
“Yale should gather together as a community to talk about this Yale history presented at the conference history and bring it to the visible space to educate and atone.”

I will return to the Yale Conference and comment about the Harvard conference on April 29, 2022, in a subsequent blog.

In the meantime, it is important to keep in mind the religious nature of the actions by both Harvard and Yale even though both universities are no longer officially Puritan. They are asking Americans to atone.

Acknowledging the truth is not enough. We have a moral obligation to take action….
We can never fully remedy the incalculable damage caused by America’s “original sin.”

To which one may colloquially reply: Who died and made you God?

Returning to “Enslaved” versus “Slave”: Yale, Virginia, and New Jersey, I wrote:

For a Puritan-founded school, the call to atone for America’s original sin makes sense. It’s fine if Yale wants to atone for its sins but how will that play in Peoria? In New Haven? Or in Virginia?

The Yale-based blog was written just after the Republican victory in Virginia for governor. Now we are approaching the 2022 Congressional elections. I predict the call by the Visible Saints, the Elect of God at Harvard for Americans to repent will fall on deaf ears. Harvard should keep in mind how “elitist” Anthony Fauci who has tried to save lives has been vilified before venturing out in the public arena with its own call to save the American people.

Part I

“Enslaved” versus “Slave”: Yale, Virginia, and New Jersey

Slide from the Yale and Slavery in Historical Perspective Conference,” Oct. 28-30, 2021

What should you call a person who is owned by another person? Traditionally, the common noun for such a person has been “slave.” Lately that word has been called into question. Instead the common noun has been dropped and replaced by the adjective “enslaved” from the verb “to enslave” now placed before the word “person.”

This proposed name change recently has been mentioned by Yale and The New York Times.  During the “Yale and Slavery in Historical Perspective Conference,” Oct. 28-30, 2021, Michael Lotstein, University Archivist, Manuscripts and Archives, spoke about it. Then on November 1, 2021, on the front page of The New York Times, the slave/enslaved words was one of the binary choices included in “On the Left, a New Scramble over the Right Words to Say.” One should note that the front page article immediately below this one was “Ugly Infighting and Virginia Election Fill Democrats with Dread.” The next day was the election. This combination of presentations and actions serves as a reminder that the debate over slave and enslaved isn’t simply an academic one but part of the culture wars with political consequences.


The New York Times article included the following:

The effort to substitute “enslaved people” for “slaves” has been long advocated by many Black academics to emphasize the violence that defined American slavery and the humanity of those subjected to it, said Anne Charity Hudley, a linguist at Stanford.

As best I recall, Lotstein reported that the Dictionary of Archival Terminology was going to be updated accordingly. In other words, there is a process going on of mandating the use of this politically-corrected vocabulary.

Common nouns, of course, are not inherent to people’s identity as a human being. Calling Lotstein an “archivist” does not invalidate his humanity or conflate the person and the term. Calling someone a “professor” does not denigrate the person’s humanity. People well understand that calling someone a butcher, baker, or candlestick maker does not mean the common noun is inherent to their identity as a human being. From my own experience from the Exodus to Spartacus to slavery in America, it never once occurred to me that the use of the term “slave” restricted the humanity of an individual to that one and only trait thereby requiring an extraction to separate them.

In other words, what we have here is exactly what we have with voter integrity. People concoct a problem and then devise a solution which then is mandated/legislated. The so-called problem exists solely in the mind of the beholder. It is fairly easy to determine what the agenda is of those who support voter suppression in the name of voter integrity. Determining the motivations of the people who fabricated this problem and then concocted a solution requires more investigation.


Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start, and take it one step at a time. The word “slave” derives from the Slavic people. It arose because for centuries they were the people the civilized people of Europe enslaved.

So common was the slavery of Slavs that the people eventually gave their name to the condition. The people owned were called “slaves” after their ethnicity. This occurred prior to the invention of the concept of a white race. Slavs were the uncivilized people from beyond the pale so it was acceptable to enslave them. As a general rule, people do not enslave their own kind however they choose to define themselves.

Here we have an example of “Xerox,” the proper noun, becoming “xerox,” the verb meaning to photocopy. Similarly Google has come to mean “search.” Besides Slavs, Gypsies and Jews also have seen their name become ordinary words, in these cases, verbs. Generally, these usages are considered unacceptable today. However it is still seems to be permissible to use and abuse the Slavic name.

How to people become slaves? One common way is that they are taken captive in a war. Being in captivity then redefines the person from being “free” to being a “captive.” Is “captive” inherent to their identity as a human being? The word “captive” appears to fulfill the criteria for “slave” in being a word requiring politically-corrected updating. Has it happened?

Captives may also be considered to be “prisoners.” Here again, we appear to have a word requiring politically-corrected updating to extract the humanity from the condition forced upon the person. No more POWs. For that matter, no more cons, convicts, or ex-cons. Is “slave” really the one and only word in the English language where the separation of the humanity of the person and condition imposed on the person needs to be applied?

What about the person who seeks to avoid becoming a captive or a prisoner and then becoming a slave? A person who flees may become a “refugee.” This condition is forced upon the individual. To be consistent, should the person be a “refugeed person”?

What about immigrant? If the refugee then becomes an immigrant, does the humanity of the individual still require extraction from the term?

Come to think of it, what about students who are forced to attend school until age 16? Shouldn’t there be separate terms for people who are forced to be students and those who freely choose that status?

How many common nouns need to be updated if the English language is to be purified?


During the Yale conference on slavery, three speakers mentioned the need to atone for Yale’s history of slavery.

Yale should acknowledge, engage, atone, and educate.

Yale should use its financial resources to repair and atone.

Yale should gather together as a community to talk about this Yale history presented at the conference history and bring it to the visible space to educate and atone.

For a Puritan-founded school, the call to atone for America’s original sin makes sense. It’s fine if Yale wants to atone for its sins but how will that play in Peoria? In New Haven? Or in Virginia?

In the concluding session, various participants and conference organizer David Blight talked about what is next for Yale. Yale has an opportunity to proceed on two levels. As a national and internationally-renowned university, Yale is poised to take a leadership role on the study of slavery in American history. That certainly would be consistent with Prof. Blight’s own position in the academic community as a scholar. On a second level, Yale is located in New Haven. As was brought out in many of the presentations, Yale’s history of slavery is part of New Haven’s (and Connecticut’s and New England’s history) as well.

By coincidence, during this Yale Seminar, New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks wrote “The Self-Isolation of the American Left.” He said:

Modern progressivism is in danger of becoming dominated by a relatively small group of people who went to the same colleges, live in the same neighborhoods, and have trouble seeing beyond their subculture’s point of view.

The Yale conference was online, but in general terms it met the description published by Brooks right in the middle of it as the presenters were Yale professors, Yale students, and Yale graduates.

One subculture is sometimes using its cultural power to try to make its views dominant, often through intimidation.  

This is exactly what is happening with the mandating of “enslave” as an archival category for a non-existent concocted problem.

Here then is the challenge for Yale. At some point, “slave/enslave” may join 1619 and critical race theory in the culture wars at the national level. Remember it only took one guest appearance on Tucker Carlson to ignite the critical race theory explosion. It is easy to imagine the same weaponization occurring with “enslave.” The message of the need of white people to atone for being white is not a winning one. The message that if you want to be a visible saint, an elect of God, you will use our morally superior vocabulary, is not a winning one. The message that you are backwards and racist if you do not use our morally superior vocabulary and repent is not a winning one.

As a teacher said at P.S. 295 in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn about diversity books, “Why can’t we read normal children’s books?” One may add, why can’t we speak “normal.” Perhaps there will be legislation requiring it. No one begrudges the right of people to want to think of themselves as morally superior. But creating an established church that forces its vocabulary and doctrine on others is doomed to failure. It did not work for the Puritans in the 1600s and will not work for the New Puritans in the 2100s.