Harvard Report Brings Joy and Sorrow to Descendants of Slaves


“We can’t change the past, but we can heal and it can make us stronger.”

Roberta Wolff, descendant of Tony, Cuba and Darby Vassall who were enslaved by Harvard benefactors during the institution’s early decades, poses on the porch of her family home, Wednesday, April 27, 2022, in Bellingham, Mass. Charles Krupa/Associated Press

BOSTON (AP) — Egypt Lloyd couldn’t hold back tears when she saw the names — her ancestors, Tony, Cuba and Darby — in a study documenting Harvard University’s involvement in the slave trade. in the USA.

Lloyd grew up nearby, in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood, but his family only recently learned of ancestors who were kept as slaves by Harvard benefactors during the famed institution’s early decades.

“I felt like my ancestors were saying ‘Thank God,’ because it finally came to light,” Lloyd, 42, said. “I think this is the first step towards healing.”

Among the more startling revelations of the Harvard report was the list of more than 70 people held in slavery by Harvard leaders and supporters, often on or near the campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Their living descendants are estimated to number in the tens of thousands, including some who lived and worked in the Boston area without knowing their family connection to the Ivy League school.

Harvard’s report came with a promise to atone for his wrongs and the profits he reaped from the cotton, sugar, and other trades that relied on slave labor. The country’s oldest and wealthiest university, Harvard, said it would create a $100 million fund to implement a series of recommendations in the report.

Among them is a call to identify the descendants of slaves and build relationships with them, with the aim of helping them “recover their stories, tell their stories and pursue empowering knowledge”.

For Lloyd and other descendants, the discovery brought sadness and joy.

The Lloyd family learned that they were descended from Darby Vassall, son of Tony and Cuba, a slave couple kept by a wealthy family who helped found Harvard Law School. Darby became an abolitionist and a prominent figure in Boston’s free black community.

“They still live through me, they still live through my kids, they still live through my dad,” said Lloyd, who lives outside of Atlanta and founded a drone servicing company. “We can’t change the past, but we can heal and it can make us stronger.”

This was all the more surprising, given his family’s chance encounters with Harvard. His sister, Jordan, for example, once worked there as a waitress.

Harvard researchers have been studying the subject for years and have so far identified a few dozen living descendants. They estimate there could be more than 50,000 scattered across the United States.

Lloyd’s family learned of his ancestry in 2019 from Carissa Chen, then a Harvard undergrad, researching the school’s role in slavery with guidance from a history professor.

“Descendants have often responded with utter shock,” Chen, now a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, said in an email. “Some felt a surge of joy and excitement, others reacted with a dark sense of understanding and loss.”

Roberta Wolff, 79, also learned only a few years ago that she was descended from Darby Vassall. Wolff grew up in the South End of Boston, a few miles from Harvard. It was the first time she learned about slavery in her family tree.

“Wow, that was overwhelming. It’s still overwhelming,” she said.

Wolff aspired to become a nurse, but her family could not afford her education. She went to work for airlines for more than three decades, working ticket counters and other jobs at airports around the country while raising a family. Most recently, she worked at a casino near her home in Bellingham, Massachusetts, until the pandemic hit.

She hopes Harvard, through this effort, will find a way to help struggling students.

“I hope that Harvard will try to reinvest some of its resources related to slavery so that we can help other children in public schools, like maybe helping hurting and low-income communities and helping students to go to the University. It would be a great idea,” she said.

Others have doubts about Harvard’s commitment. Tamara Lanier sees the report as a “public relations move” and fears there will be no meaningful action.

Harvard Report Brings Joy and Sorrow to Descendants of Slaves
A headstone marks the grave of “Cicely”, a 15-year-old “Negro servant” of the Reverend William Brattle, treasurer of Harvard College, at the Old Burying Ground just outside Harvard Yard, Wednesday, April 27, 2022, in Cambridge, Mass. –Charles Krupa/Associated Press

Lanier, 59, of Norwich, Connecticut, is fighting Harvard in court, trying to appropriate several 1850 photographs depicting two ancestors who were enslaved in South Carolina at the time. The photos were commissioned by a Harvard scholar whose discredited ideas were used to support slavery.

Harvard used the footage to promote its own research into slavery and claims the university is the rightful owner.

“The way they treated the descendants of slaves, my family in particular, is shameful,” she said. “I have lost faith in Harvard that they will do the right thing.”

Harvard’s new report calls on the university to “make a significant financial commitment” to its reparations efforts, but it does not recommend financial reparations to descendants. Some critics said reparations should be part of the effort, especially given Harvard’s $53 billion endowment.

Lloyd is among those who believe that Harvard should make direct contributions to descendants. But she also wants the funding to support education and further research. Last year, his family started the Slave Legacy History Coalition, a Boston-area group that comes together to honor slave lives and fight the legacy of slavery.

“I’m not looking for Harvard to get rich,” she said. “What we would like is for them to come together and support our coalition. Because we are all in the same boat.


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