Slavery Featured

Nothing can give the victims of slavery justice – and certainly not money

slavery fund
Written by Juliet Samuel

What do we owe the dead? Harvard has set its best minds on the question and come up with an answer: $100 million.

That’s the amount the American university has set aside for a “redress fund” after releasing its Slavery Report, a four-year project documenting its historic ties to slavery and segregation. Since it’s my alma mater, a link dropped into my inbox and, curious, I clicked.

Scrolling past a few pages of grandstanding and priggery, I noted the warning that I would be “learning painful truths about the history of an institution that you have come to know, respect, and even love” and prepared to cry desolately into my pillow afterwards. Then I reached the substance.

It was an interesting read. I learnt that the university kept at least 70 slaves before 1783 and had benefited from large donations from two slave traders. I am not sure this backs up the editorial comment that “slavery was integral to Harvard”, but it was certainly present.

Some of the links are pretty tenuous – a Boston merchant who traded in sugar (grown by slaves) donated to a Harvard-affiliated hospital – but others are not. In one of the ugliest stories, five Africans were shipped to Boston in 1860 for display in a museum garden as living “specimens” of “savagery”. When one, a 17-year-old boy called Sturmann, hanged himself, his body was shipped to Harvard for dissection by a “race scientist” called Jeffries Wyman.

Wyman was one of those ghoulish, Victorian freaks, celebrated in certain circles, who obsessed over the dimensions of skulls and bones, claiming that such miscellanea could reveal racial traits useful for organising society. He measured Sturmann’s skeleton, comparing it to those of various primates and concluded, reluctantly, that it “belonged to the human family”. A cast of the poor boy’s head is still in Harvard’s collection.

This is the sort of story that we ought to know about our institutions. Harvard touts its links with abolitionists and civil rights campaigners and highlights its first black graduates and professors. So it’s right to add this grim caveat to the self-congratulation. This is what we owe the dead: remembrance of what they suffered, at whose hands and why.

What, then, is the role of that $100 million? This being America, Harvard obviously couldn’t let this pass without the sanctification of a big, fat cheque. The cash is earmarked, we’re told, for the education of black children and Native Americans, funding research and partnerships with historically black universities and “relationship building” with descendants of Harvard’s slaves. Some worthy projects, to be sure, and yet I can’t help but feel uneasy. I had read more than 100 pages of history and it ended here, with a pool of blood money whose rightful recipient its donor can’t even identify.

No wonder it can’t: the victims of these crimes are long dead. Nothing can bring them justice. If money could buy redemption, would $100 million – 0.18 per cent of Harvard’s endowment – even be enough? Why not more? Perhaps we should just wind up the whole university and donate its wealth to Liberia. It still wouldn’t change the past.

I have a better idea. Let history belong to history and let money belong to the modern world, with its own problems and solutions. Is Harvard’s past relevant? Yes, if you’re celebrating or researching its legacy. Is it relevant to decisions on how to educate disadvantaged children or what scientific research to fund? Absolutely not. A university should understand the difference.

This article was first published in the Daily Telegraph, and is posted here by kind permission. 

About the author


Juliet Samuel