A letter from Sarah M. Whiting on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery

Dear GSD community,

I write to encourage you to pause and take in this morning’s email from President Bacow sharing the Report and Recommendations of the Presidential Committee on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery. The report opens with the simple, direct claim that “Harvard’s motto, Veritas, inscribed on gates, doorways, and sculptures all over campus, demands of us truth.” The painful truths revealed in this carefully documented report betray the ethics represented by the word Veritas. The committee’s recommendations offer up just the beginning of a way forward for Harvard and for all of us.

I am deeply grateful to the members of the Committee on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery—appointed by President Bacow in 2019 and chaired by Tomiko Brown-Nagin, Dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study—for undertaking this monumentally difficult task, in particular the contributions of the GSD’s own Stephen Gray, Associate Professor of Urban Design.

I urge you all to read the report in its entirety. As designers, planners, historians, theorists, teachers, and citizens, it is critically important to learn about and know this part of our university’s history. The legacy of slavery at the university we call home is difficult to read, but also powerful in how it exemplifies how the ravages of slavery—while legally abolished in Massachusetts in 1783 and across the United States in 1865—were and continue to be inextricable from flows of global capital, the formations of modern cities as we know them today, and the repressive violence underlying them.

The design and planning disciplines share culpability in this history—in their makeup as professionalized groups of experts and practitioners, and in the direct roles they play in planning for and designing the environments we inhabit. But as the committee’s recommendations make clear, the design and planning disciplines also have an important role to play in our reckoning with that history. There is an enormous amount of work to be done at Harvard, the GSD, and in our fields, and the committee’s recommendations and the university’s significant and sustained commitment of resources mark a valuable step forward toward progress.

In the weeks and months ahead, we will consider and discuss with members of our GSD and Harvard communities the significance of the committee’s findings so as to begin to determine how best we might support the recommendations contained in the report, and where we might go from here. This work, which will be collective, will take many forms, and will be long ongoing.

I encourage everyone to participate in a few related gatherings already planned for the coming weeks. This Friday, April 29, the Radcliffe Institute will be hosting a day-long symposium in connection with the report’s release titled Telling the Truth about All This: Reckoning with Slavery and Its Legacies at Harvard and Beyond. Two screenings and discussions of a video that the Radcliffe Institute has produced as an introduction to the committee’s report also have been scheduled during the next few weeks, and I hope those of you on campus on Monday, May 16, will attend the screening scheduled to happen at Gund Hall. Details about these three events are below.

Thursday, April 28
12:00pm – 1:00pm
Virtual screening and discussion
Community & Affinity Spaces, an initiative of the Harvard Office for Equity, Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging
Register here

Friday, April 29
9:15am – 6:00pm
Telling the Truth About all This
Radcliffe Institute
Register here

Monday, May 16
4:00pm – 5:00pm
In-person screening and discussion
Gund Hall 111
No registration necessary

At the GSD, we all necessarily traffic in optimism—we aim at a better world—even if reading this history of Harvard can make it almost impossible to maintain any degree of optimism. And it is vital that we know its truth, as uncomfortable and painful as it may be, and keep that truth squarely in view as we gather our collective will toward repairing the devastations of the past and present, and strive for that better world for our families and loved ones, colleagues, and ourselves

In community,