Harvard Highlight: Martine Jean interview on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery

Headshot of Martine Jean

Martine Jean is a Haitian-American historian on 19th-century Brazil, focused on topics such as of slavery, poverty, race-making, citizenship, crime, and punishment. Martine earned her Ph.D. in Latin American History and African American Studies from Yale University and served as an Assistant Professor of Latin American History at the University of South Carolina. At Harvard, she was as a Visiting Fellow with the Weatherhead Research Cluster on Global Transformations and Mark Claster Mamolen Fellow at the Afro-Latin American Research Institute at the Hutchins Center before assuming her current post as a research fellow with the Presidential Initiative on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery at the Harvard Radcliff Institute.

This interview was conducted by Ana Beatriz Miraglia and originally published in Portuguese by Nexo Políticas Públicas (“Como um projeto investiga o legado da escravidão em uma universidade americana”)

How and why did the “Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery” initiative begin at the end of 2019? What is it foreseen duration of the initiative? What is your role?

The initiative on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery was announced by Harvard President Larry Bacow in November of 2019 and is anchored at Harvard Radcliffe Institute. It is an effort to understand and address the enduring legacy of slavery within our University community, guided by a Presidential Committee that includes faculty from all of Harvard’s schools. Our faculty are engaged in several key areas of inquiry:

  • Campus and Community
  • Curriculum
  • Harvard’s historical ties to slavery in Antigua and the Caribbean and
  • Medical Education and Exploitation

The project builds on years of important work, including several significant steps under the leadership of Harvard President Emerita Drew Gilpin Faust whose effort in that regard led to several initiatives:

  • The retirement of the Harvard Law School shield, which contained elements of the slave-owning Royall family’s crest, on the recommendation of a faculty committee established by Dean Martha Minow in response to student activism on campus.
  • The establishment of a faculty committee convened by President Faust, which initiated research on the University’s historical ties to slavery through work with the Harvard Archives and other University collections, and the resulting installation of a memorial at Wadsworth House acknowledging the four enslaved people known to have lived there—Titus, Venus, Juba, and Bilhah;
  • Numerous classes, seminars, exhibitions, performances, and discussions that have taken place across our campus.

In its work, the initiative is committed to a strong grounding in rigorous historical research; a focus on connections, impact, and contributions that are specific to our Harvard community; and investment in opportunities to convene our broader University community to examine the impact and legacy of slavery in the present and beyond. We are engaged in this work through various efforts but are currently working on a historical report, due out in Winter 2021–2022, focusing on case studies that illustrate.

The historical report will also include possible recommendations that address memorializing slavery’s impact at the University; Understanding and addressing legacies of slavery on campus; and Harvard employing its thought leadership to engage in repair. As the Research Fellow, I am part of a team that oversees investigating key individuals including Harvard professors and donors who were directly or indirectly linked to slavery as slaveowners, slave traders, and/or investors. Our research also probes the role of prominent professors at Harvard such as Louis Agassiz and their role in the production and dissemination of racist ideas to justify the enslavement of people of African descent during and after slavery. The initiative consists of several efforts currently underway that engage with twentieth-century history and contemporary legacies. The focus of the historical report is more narrowly defined. This is a beginning, and we invite other researchers to think with us about what must come next and to pursue the many important related lines of inquiry.

What are the main areas that the initiative is investigating about the legacy of slavery at Harvard?

This is of course a vast topic. Slavery lasted roughly four centuries in the Americas and a University as old as Harvard is necessarily shaped by this history. Our task is to select key events and people that illuminate the impact of slavery at Harvard. We have opted to focus on enslavement on campus before the American Revolution; the ways that Harvard benefitted from slavery economically; and finally, Harvard’s thought leadership in bolstering slavery and racist ideologies. The historical report will also engage with eugenics, segregation, and the civil rights movement in the early twentieth century.

Are there already any decisions about concrete measures that the University intends to adopt given what has been learned through this historical investigation?

There are several concrete initiatives underway including the historical report. Professors Bill Wilson and Anthony Jack are engaged in a survey of current Harvard students, focusing primarily on Black students who were born in the United States, not only those who are descendants of enslaved people in this country, but also those who are children of immigrants. The goal is to shed light on how Harvard undergraduate students are coping with the confluence of racial reckoning, the public health crisis, and economic distress. We expect to share preliminary findings with our report in Fall 2021.

Other concrete initiatives include developing public programming that broadly engages issues related to legacies of slavery; establishing partnerships with community organizations— like the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford, and the Museum of African American History in Boston—to develop programming and resources that illuminate these issues. We are also developing educational resources for the Harvard community and beyond, including but not limited to an orientation video that will introduce this history to the campus community; producing curricular resources to support further teaching and discussion at the schools; designing a virtual walking tour that will center the lives of enslaved people on and near campus in the 1700s.

How is this research relevant to the broader debate about reparations for racial inequalities and addressing structural racism in other countries?

This research is very crucial to the debate on reparation and ending racial discrimination and structural racism in the United States and of course Brazil. Slavery has ended but we are still living with its legacies in terms of racialized policing, health care inequality, educational disparities, etc. When most people think of slavery, they imagine the plantation. They do not think of cities and symbols of progress like an educational institution such as Harvard. However, slave labor fueled virtually every aspect of the development of the modern world as we know it, and institutions like Harvard, hospitals, churches, prisons, and money derived from slavery paid for the urbanization of the Americas. Scholars at universities like Harvard were at the forefront of race science which lent credence to racist ideas that entrenched violent policing, racially-based educational policies, and public health discrimination. The research on the legacy of slavery at Harvard will inform discussions about reparations in many ways. First, it should correct the historical record by showing how the university concretely benefitted from slavery and money derived from slave labor. It should be a call for other institutions to research their entanglement with slavery. Finally, it should inform reparations as a key social justice issue of our era.

You are a specialist on racial issues in Brazil and your book “Policing Freedom: Confinement, Labor, Race and Citizenship in Nineteenth-Century Brazil” is soon to be published by University of Texas Press. Do you see any possibility of Brazilian institutions adopting racial reparation measures like this initiative at Harvard? How might this contribute to the debate about racial issues in Brazil?

I think that institutions in Brazil, not just universities, can benefit from the initiative at Harvard, and should emulate it. Harvard of course is not the first to investigate its entanglement with slavery. Brown University led this reckoning and other universities have followed suit since then. Slavery lasted in Brazil until 1888 and many Brazilian institutions, such as the penitentiary as I discuss in my book, benefitted from slave labor. Brazil still confronts the legacy of slavery in terms of police brutality, health, and housing disparities in urban metropolises like Rio, Salvador, and São Paulo. One only has to look at the police and crime statistics to understand how entrenched structural racism is in Brazil. Reparation is a complex issue and cannot be restricted to monetary compensation but should involve memorialization of enslaved people and ensuring proper representations of Afro-descended peoples in the media and at all levels of society. For example, Brazilian television also does not reflect the racial makeup of the population as most telenovelas on Globo portray primarily white families of the upper class with a few black and indigenous actors added here and there. Brazilian institutions – churches, convents, universities, the police - should investigate and recognize their entanglement with slavery. Fortunately, historians of Brazil have already done most of that work which is ongoing. It would only require these institutions to document their participation through a consideration of the literature on slavery and colonization in Brazil, the acknowledgment of the wrongs of the past, and concrete policies to restore those wrongs.