Dean Hempton Responds to Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery Report

April 26, 2022
Dean David N. Hempton. / Photo: Stephanie Mitchell, Harvard Staff Photographer
Dean David N. Hempton. / Photo: Stephanie Mitchell, Harvard Staff Photographer

Dear members of the Divinity School community:

Earlier this morning you received the report of the Committee on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery established by President Bacow and chaired by Tomiko Brown-Nagin, Dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. The report comes with a message from President Bacow, in which he quotes Dean Brown-Nagin: "We cannot dismantle what we do not understand, and we cannot understand the contemporary injustice we face unless we reckon honestly with our history."

The report itself is deeply researched and profoundly disturbing. It tells the story of Harvard’s immense complicity in one of the greatest evils of human history. Its findings will not surprise many of you, but it should trouble all of us. Harvard, either directly or indirectly, was complicit in the ownership of enslaved people, in the barbarisms of the slave trade, and in the lucrative profits of the slave economy. Harvard, including the Divinity School, benefited from the poisoned “philanthropy” of those who grew rich from the cruel exploitation of slave labor and the economy built on it. It is a shameful and disgusting history.

The report suggests that the Divinity School had distinctive opportunities to point toward greater justice. On occasion, some of the members of our community courageously sought to rise to the moment. But too often, the School betrayed its own ideals. HDS should have done better. It must do better now.

I know well this hard truth: the past’s evils stalk us in the present and they will continue to impede our future aspirations. This reality heightens our responsibility to “reckon honestly” with our past and intentionally chart a path towards a better future. The report itself draws attention to seven recommendations and several principles upon which they are based. Please pay close attention to them, as they help guide our future actions.

I would add just three comments:

The first is to adopt the spirit of the ancient wisdom literature as expressed in the book of Ecclesiastes. There is "a time for every purpose under heaven. There is a time to mourn and a time to weep." This is one of those times. Distressing though it is, please take time to sit with this report and absorb its message. Do not underestimate the trauma of engaging with it and make sure you have supports around you. This is particularly important for the members of our community who are descendants of enslaved African and Indigenous people. We will need one another and the strength of our community around us, now more than ever. Please know that HDS has student support through the Office of Student Life and the Office of the Chaplain and Religious and Spiritual Life, through Harvard’s Chaplains, through the Employee Assistance Program, and through Harvard University Health Services.

Second, we unreservedly support the committee’s recommendations and the main principle undergirding them that "to be meaningful, remedies must be visible, lasting, grounded in a sustained process of engagement, and linked to the nature of the damage done." We must account not only for slavery itself, but for "the legacies of slavery—exclusion, segregation, marginalization, criminalization, disenfranchisement, and more—[that] compound the damage."

Third, we must continue the work of making Harvard Divinity School a restorative, anti-oppressive, and anti-racist community where everyone can belong and flourish. The tentacles of the evil addressed in this report extend deep and wide and no amount of weasel words or institutional good intentions are going to suffice. This is a moment for reflection and repentance, for reckoning and resolve, for honesty and hope, and for action. We owe it to those who have suffered and endured so much, and to their descendants, to turn this moment of painful truth-telling into a moment of steely determination to honor them by repairing the damage as best we can, and by creating a more just and equitable future. That is the task ahead of us.

In the coming weeks and months, as we process the report as a community, I will have more to say about the concrete steps that our School will take in response to the realities this report brings to light.

David Hempton
Dean of Harvard Divinity School