Black Students At Harvard Have Always Resisted Racism

Harvard University, like most schools in the Ivy League, has deep ties to the transatlantic slave trade. A 2019 report commissioned by President Lawrence Bacow found that faculty and staff enslaved 70 people, some of whom lived on campus; that the school’s donors profited from the slave trade; and that the university promoted the racist and ableist eugenics movement, which sought to segregate those seen as “genetically inferior.”

In reckoning with that history, the university is providing financial reparations to Black and Indigenous students who are descendants of enslaved Americans, as NPR reported. The school is also publishing a version of the presidential report.

The below excerpt details how Black students — including iconic Black intellectual and NAACP co-founder W.E.B. Du Bois — resisted the institutional racism and marginalization they encountered on campus.

Harvard’s motto: Veritas, inscribed on gates, doorways, and sculptures all over campus, demands of us truth. This report, prepared by the Presidential Committee on Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery, advances our quest for truth through scholarship about the University’s ties to slavery—direct, financial, and intellectual.

Just as legacies of slavery continued to shape campus life long after the Civil War and well into the twentieth century, so too did Black resistance. Throughout the postbellum era and into the twentieth century, Black students confronted and resisted marginalization, earning their Harvard educations and, ultimately, reshaping the nation.

W. E. B. Du Bois once recalled: “I was in Harvard, but not of it, and realized all the irony of my singing ‘Fair Harvard.’” Reflecting decades later on his experience as a black student at Harvard, Du Bois declared that the University had “a galaxy of great men and fine teachers,” Albert Bushnell Hart among them. Yet, he wrote, “I went to Harvard as a Negro…recognizing myself as a member of a segregated caste whose situation I accepted.”Of his social relationships, he wrote: “Following the attitudes which I had adopted in the South, I sought no friendships among my white fellow students, nor even acquaintanceships. Of course I wanted friends, but I could not seek them.” A lover of music and singing, he was rejected from the Glee Club: “I ought to have known that Harvard could not afford to have a Negro on its Glee Club traveling about the country.” Even moments of triumph were tinged: When Du Bois and his fellow Black student Clement G. Morgan were selected as Commencement speakers, Francis Greenwood Peabody—Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard Divinity School and preacher to the University—moved to consult the Harvard Corporation as to whether it was appropriate to select two Black students for this honor. Their answer was no; Du Bois spoke, but Morgan did not. In the end, Du Bois was lauded for his address “Jefferson Davis: Representative of Civilization.” Yet even a Harvard professor who recounted a “trustee’s” view that the paper was “masterly in every way” felt compelled to add that “Du Bois is from Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and doubtless has some white blood in his veins.”

Du Bois arrived at Harvard having already completed his undergraduate studies at the historically black Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. Harvard, unwilling to accept his Fisk credential, required Du Bois to complete a second bachelor’s degree. Fisk, like other Black institutions, was not accredited; the Southern Association of Colleges did not grant accreditation to Fisk or any other Black college in this era. Du Bois enrolled in the College as a junior and graduated cum laude in history in 1890. He completed a master’s degree in 1891 and earned his PhD in 1895.

During his time at Harvard, Du Bois’s financial struggles set him even further apart from many of his white classmates. As an undergraduate, he had to rely on outside funding and charitable loans to cover tuition and living expenses. Unable to afford student housing, he did not live on campus; and his landlady, Mary Taylor, a Black woman from Nova Scotia, let him “owe the rent.” As a graduate student, Du Bois was better financially equipped: he had inherited money from his grandfather, and, with the help of recommendations from Hart and an- other Harvard professor, James Bradley Thayer, Du Bois was awarded the Henry Bromfield Rogers Memorial Fellowship from 1890 to 1892.

Du Bois’s experience as a Harvard alumnus mirrored, in some ways, the marginalization he faced on campus. In his autobiography, he wrote of his discomfort at visiting the Harvard Club of New York around 1950 as the guest of a white classmate and club member. Some eight years earlier, in 1942, Du Bois had received what appears to be a form letter recruiting new members, prompted by the club’s loss of income with so many members leaving for the warfront. Du Bois responded:

“My dear Sir: Your letter…rather astonished me. I have been graduated from Harvard College over fifty years and this is the first time during that period that I have been asked to join a Harvard Club. I have assumed that the reason for this reticence was that I am of Negro descent. Possibly, however, Harvard is learning something from this war for democracy and has changed her attitudes. If this is true, I shall be very glad to hear from you and to become a member.”

There are no records of a reply from the club or a membership in Du Bois’s name.

As much as Du Bois’s experience with the Harvard community—as both student and alumnus—illustrates the racism and disenfranchisement of that era on campus, it is also a powerful story of resistance. He directly and publicly challenged ideas and ideologies advanced by Harvard professors and administrators, including Dean Nathaniel Southgate Shaler and President Charles William Eliot. His dissertation, titled “The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638–1870,” pushed against the common understanding of slavery at the time, casting it as a moral failure with lasting consequences.

Another piece from Du Bois’s graduate student years, “Harvard and the South,” not only illustrates his willingness to enter the fraught discourse on the post–Civil War South but also offers glimpses into his experience, having been privy to intellectual discussions in which he was uniquely implicated because of his race. The paper argues that the Civil War was “at core the result of a vast economic mistake” and that the solution to the South’s problems of the day “lies in the trained leadership toward correct economic ideas” and “the intellectual impetus of the broadly trained university man.” In one particularly telling pas- sage, Du Bois notes his distance from the “Northern student of Southern affairs,” who, he writes, “wavers between calling the whites rascals, or the Negroes idiots.” The Northern student, he writes, “cannot decide whether to make out my Southern fellow student as a case of total depravity; or me as a specimen of the anthropoid ape.” Then, directly challenging his classmates’ stereotypes, he adds: “With as little personal bias as could be expected under the circumstances, I respectfully submit that he need do neither.” Du Bois subtly acknowledges the prejudice—whether scientific, social, or religious in nature—of his Harvard audience: “If the Southern people can once be brought to see that it is to their highest economic advantage to have their working classes as intelligent and ambitious and with as great political privileges as possible, I care not what they or you think as to the origen and destiny of the Negro people.”

Long after earning his PhD, Du Bois remained active within the Harvard community, including attending reunions, and he continued to push Hart, with whom he stayed in regular contact, on matters of representation. For example, Du Bois responded to a letter from Hart wishing him well on his 50th birthday with the following note:

My dear Prof. Hart: I want to thank you very much for the kind letter which you sent on my birthday. I have been noticing that “The American Year Book” with which you are connected, always says surprisingly little about the Negro of America and elsewhere. Cannot something be done about this?

Du Bois also worked to hold the University accountable. In 1922 and 1923, leading up to the petition against President Abbott Lawrence Lowell’s exclusion of Black students from freshman dormitories, Du Bois consulted with the organizing alumni, sharing suggestions and contacts.He was “shocked” and enraged by the exclusion of the high-achieving Blacks admitted to Harvard. And he brought national attention to the issue by unleashing what biographer David Levering Lewis called a “double-barreled” critique of anti-Black discrimination and the use of anti-Jewish quotas by “Fair (!) Harvard” in the August 1922 issue of Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP. The dormitory exclusion distressed Du Bois because it showed that “mainstream America recognized no amount of merit, conceded not even the most minimal authority…however rarely talented, insofar as Negro citizens were concerned.”

Du Bois’s role in co-founding the NAACP—the nation’s oldest civil rights organization—was his most profound act of resistance to the marginalization of African Americans in American society. Under the aegis of that organization and its lawyers, Black Americans struggled against discrimination in the political process, housing, public accommodations, the criminal legal system, and education. The organization’s legal strategy against segregation prevailed in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), one of the most celebrated cases in the canon of American constitutional law.

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