Larry Aubry (file photo)

Reparations for the descendants of African slaves has been talked about ad infinitum, yet there has been virtually no legislative action taken to make this happen.    (Congressman John Conyers could not even to get a reparations bill out of committee for more than twenty years—to simply do a study on reparations.)  Today’s column summarizes a “major” conference at Harvard University about slavery, universities and reparations.  A New York Times article by Jennifer Schussler, “Confronting Academia’s Ties to Slavery,” recaps the conference.

In my opinion, the most important thing is whether this, and similar conferences, actually commit to advocating for reparations for the descendants of African Slaves in America.

“In 1976, archivists at Harvard’s Natural History Museum opened a drawer and discovered a haunting portrait of a shirtless enslaved man named Renty.  Taken on a South Carolina plantation in 1850, it had been used by the Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz to formulate his now-discredited ideas about racial difference.

On March 3, 1917, Harvard’s president, Drew Gilpin Faust, headed a “major” public conference exploring the long-neglected collaborations between universities, slavery and reparations.  Harvard had been “directly complicit” in slavery, Ms. Faust acknowledged. ‘Only by coming to terms with history can we free ourselves to create a more just world,” she said.  The gathering, which drew an overflow crowd of about 500, featured a keynote address by    writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. The audience included researchers from more than 30 campuses. Between sessions, one scholar was heard saying that “something we’ve been talking about for 200 years has suddenly become urgent.”

Alfred L. Brophy, a legal historian at the University of North Carolina and the author of “University, Court and Slave,” a study of pro-slavery thought at antebellum Southern colleges, described what he called a “sea change” in attitude.  “Now the people doing this work are lifted up.”  (Really?)

The historical connections between universities and slavery first came to the fore in 2001, when a group of Yale graduate students issued an independent report aimed at puncturing what they saw as the school’s selective celebration of its abolitionist past.  In 2003, the Brown University president announced a major effort to research that school’s extensive historical ties to the slave trade.  While the move grabbed headlines, “there wasn’t a single peep from another university.”

Since then, scholars at Harvard, Princeton, William and Mary, Georgetown, the University of Virginia, Rutgers and numerous other schools have done slavery research, sometimes seeing it embraced by administrators only in response to campus activism- the students have been the one group to keep the conversation alive.

Research on the topic has been shadowed by the specter of reparations. In his address, Mr. Coates, who wrote “The Case for Reparations,” a widely discussed 2014 article in The Atlantic, recalled when Whites reacted to the mere mention of reparations, it was as if “You’d just suggested human sacrifice or something.”

The dismissal in 2004 of a major reparations lawsuit against corporations seems to have removed the legal threat against universities, which had also been identified as potential targets.  But, Mr. Coates said that the moral claim was undeniable.  “I think every one of these universities needs to give reparations…..I don’t know how you conduct research showing your very existence is rooted in a great crime and then you say ‘Well, sorry and walk away.’”  No other speakers explicitly endorsed financial reparations, but it was a sentiment shared throughout the audience.

The Harvard conference, organized by the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, was an initiative of Ms. Faust, a distinguished historian of the Civil War and the American South.  Last March, (1916) after student protests over racially charged symbols on campus and related issues, she published an op-ed article in the Harvard Crimson calling for fuller acknowledgement of the “mostly untold story” of Harvard and slavery.

Research published, without any Harvard imprimatur, in 2011 and now incorporated into an official university website unveiled for the conference, described the ways Harvard “was built at least partly on the violence on the slave trader, the Middle Passage, the auction block and the whip.”  There were gasps when a panelist recounted how Isaac Royall, Jr., a West Indian planter whose financial gifts led to the founding of Harvard Law School, helped brutally put down a slave rebellion on Antigua, during which dozens were drawn and quartered or burned at the stake.

Other speakers brought the story closer to the present, described how Harvard in 1899 created a tropical research station on a sugar plantation in Cuba, owned by a planter made rich from slavery.  (Slavery had been abolished in Cuba only 13 years earlier.) The plantation owner also made significant donations to the school in what was just one of many ways that slavery helped build “the vast educational resources Harvard still enjoys today.”

The question of who gets access to those resources hung over the day’s events. An  M.I.T. participant said that research into universities and slavery can promote not just knowledge of the past but justice and inclusion in the present. Universities once worried that studies of slavery and reparations which somehow “tarnish our gates” In fact, they opened them.

The most important thing is that universities and colleges commit to concrete actions supportive of their research findings that confirm the need for reparations for the descendants of African slaves in America.

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