By Jacqueline Charles
The prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, annoyed that Harvard University has ignored repeated requests from his government to make amends for Antiguan slave labor contributions to the creation of Harvard Law School, has personally written to the university's president to get results.
Harvard's failure to acknowledge its obligations to the eastern Caribbean nation at a time when other universities are acknowledging their ties to slavery and making reparations is "shocking if not immoral," Prime Minister Gaston Browne said.
"Reparation from Harvard would compensate for its development on the backs of our people," Browne wrote in an Oct. 30 letter to Harvard President Lawrence Bacow. "Reparation is not aid; it is not a gift; it is compensation to correct the injustices of the past and restore equity. Harvard should be in the forefront of this effort."
In a response to Browne dated Tuesday, Bacow said the Harvard Corporation in 2016 approved the removal of the law school's shield, which included symbols drawn from the family crest of Isaac Royall Jr., the Antigua slaveholder who left land to Harvard College in his will to establish its first professorship in 1815 that led to the creation of Harvard Law School. Soon after, a stone memorial recognizing "the enslaved whose labor created wealth that made possible the founding of Harvard Law School" was mounted in the plaza.
"These were significant steps for our entire community," Bacow wrote, adding that the university recognizes "that there is more work to be done."
"Harvard is determined to take additional steps to explore this institution's historical relationship with slavery and the challenging moral questions that arise when confronting past injustices and their legacies," Bacow wrote.
Browne told the Miami Herald that Bacow's response is "disingenuous."
"He has acknowledged the veracity of our claim that Harvard Law School benefited from endowments funded from profits associated with the enslavement ... at Royall Estate in Antigua, but he has failed to address the issue of reparations in a meaningful way," Browne said. "If they fail to engage meaningfully, we will be forced to pursue all legal remedies available to us to ensure ... justice."
It would not be the first time Harvard is sued over slavery. In March, Tamara Lanier, of Norwich, Connecticut, filed suit in Massachusetts state court accusing Harvard of exploiting images of her slave ancestors. The pictures of her enslaved ancestors were used in studies to prove blacks were inferior to whites, she said.
In 2017, Janet Halley, a Harvard professor who took on the distinguished Royall Professorship, called on Harvard to acknowledge its ties to slavery. She noted in a lecture that Harvard Law School was built with money derived from slave labor.
Browne's government first reached out to Harvard in 2016 and again in 2018. After an unsatisfactory response from the elite university, Browne decided to write himself, he said. His letter came after two U.S. universities, Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria and Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey, pledged to set aside money for reparations.
Virginia Theological Seminary, the flagship school of the U.S. Episcopal Church, agreed to set up a $1.7 million reparations fund after it was discovered that the school had enslaved persons employed on its campus and it was involved in racial segregation even after slavery ended.
Weeks earlier, the board of trustees at Princeton Theological, a private Presbyterian school, announced a series of initiatives, including scholarships for descendants of slaves, hiring more scholars to study the legacy of slavery and reserving $27.6 million for a reparations endowment.
Princeton's decision was taken after a two-year audit by faculty and administrators revealed that the seminary received financial contributions from Southern slave owners, congregations and others with ties to slavery.
"The Seminary's ties to slavery are a part of our story. It is important to acknowledge that our founders were entangled with slavery and could not envision a fully integrated society," said Princeton Theological Seminary President M. Craig Barnes. "We are committed to telling the truth. We did not want to shy away from the uncomfortable part of our history and the difficult conversations that revealing the truth would produce."
Browne noted that in addition to an "act of repentance" by the two religious colleges, students at Georgetown University earlier this year voted to raise their tuition to benefit descendants of the 272 slaves who were sold by the Jesuits who ran the school. Also, Glasgow University in the United Kingdom agreed over the summer to fund a joint center for development research with the University of the West Indies to atone for its slavery ties after it was discovered that it had benefited financially from Scottish slave traders.
"Yet Harvard remains silent," Browne said.
The story behind Browne's request has to do with the role of Royall — whose father moved from Antigua to Medford, Massachusetts, with the family and 27 slaves — in the founding of Harvard College. The younger Royall lived in Massachusetts but made his fortune as a slaveholder and owner of a sugar plantation in Antigua.
Today, his Medford home is known as the Isaac Royall House, a historic landmark and museum with preserved slave quarters.
"Isaac Royall derived his wealth from the labor of persons he enslaved on a plantation in Antigua and Barbuda," Browne wrote. "The bequest to Harvard came from the proceeds of the plantation in Antigua and from the exploitation and sale of human beings that Royall regarded as chattel."
In a Nov. 26, 2018, letter to Harvard, Antigua's ambassador to the U.S. and Organization of American States, Sir Ronald Sanders, proposed that Harvard assist Antigua and Barbuda in the field of education as a way to make amends.
"Antigua and Barbuda is a small country with an economy of only $1.5 billion. Our struggle to develop our country is inextricably linked to education. It is for that reason that my government has spent hard-earned and scarce resources on establishing a campus of the University of the West Indies on Antigua," Browne said. "The education of our people is key to unleashing their capacity across all economic sectors, improving the quality of life of the nation and its ability to participate in global development."