The legacy of slavery and the danger of erasure

Dear Members of the Harvard Chan School Community,

As President Larry Bacow has shared with you, the Presidential Committee on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery released a powerful report today. It surfaces obscured, forgotten, and ignored revelations about Harvard’s deep entanglement with the institution of slavery. Delving into this harrowing material is hard but grappling with the truth matters.

What hit me as I absorbed this painstaking report is how profoundly effective Harvard was in its effort to erase the massive evidence that its wealth was derived from the labor of enslaved and subjugated people.

As you will no doubt recognize, a similar pattern of unjust erasure torments large swaths of humanity today. Low-income people experience it as societal blindness to their long suffering from unequal access to health care, living wages, affordable housing, drinkable water, and the promise of democracy.

The erasure does not stop there. In a country where pandemic-fueled racism spiked anti-Asian hate crimes by more than 300% in 2021, Asian Americans experience it as silence, a lack of sustained attention to the hate impacting their communities.

Meanwhile, hate is measurably on the rise toward the Jewish community, the LGBTQ community, and toward girls and women. Societal erasure of their status and rights is also, too often, met with silence.

The Black community, too, continues to face erasure. The U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, in part on the grounds that the U.S. had moved beyond “entrenched racial discrimination.” In the years since, the Court has systematically overturned the few protections that remain, effectively muting the voices of Black citizens and other minority voters in some parts of the country. I am deeply concerned that the Court—ignoring or willfully erasing the clear evidence of systemic racism in this country—will move in the coming months to overturn the long-standing practice in academia of using race as one factor among many in evaluating applicants to build a diverse class.

Erasure is a worldwide problem. The brutal abuses experienced by refugees and migrants at the hands of smugglers, traffickers, militias, and sometimes government officials are largely invisible. And in Ukraine, the attempted destruction of a nation rests on willful, reflexive, total erasure of its citizens as individuals of value.

That is why it matters that we do not look away.

Harvard faculty and leaders enslaved more than 70 people, some of whom lived on campus and cared for and fed generations of students. Past Harvard presidents and professors promoted race science and eugenics and conducted abusive research on enslaved human beings. Only through a more complete understanding of history can we think clearly about the past and how it influences the present. Such clarity enables us to address vital public health issues of justice, inclusion, and human rights more fully.

I expect the contents of this report will unsettle and disturb many across our community, especially coming on top of the multiple traumas of the last few years, on the heels of other difficult reports on discrimination and bullying, and just before exams. Please make use of the resources listed below as needed. And please know that we are committed to convening gatherings this spring and over the next year, both at the School and across the University, so our community can discuss these findings and Harvard’s response.

I truly believe that unearthing and addressing this dark legacy can help us shape our community and our institution in positive ways. The report outlines several recommendations meant to hold Harvard accountable for its past and to seek “meaningful repair.” These include creating new educational opportunities for children and young adults from marginalized communities; developing enduring partnerships with historically Black colleges and universities; and building a permanent memorial to honor the enslaved people who helped build Harvard. As you saw in President Bacow’s letter, the University has set aside $100 million to carry out these and other recommendations and appointed former Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow to chair an implementation committee.

This is a welcome start. And it should be seen as exactly that: a start. As we meet in the coming weeks and months, I will look to all of you to share additional ideas to support the University’s goals of accountability, redress, and repair. Our Harvard Chan community may want to focus in on recommendations for addressing the public health impacts of both past oppression and the structural racism that persists, with malignant effect, across our nation to this day.

As we move forward, I hope we hold three principles in mind, for it is essential that we:

Wrest with difficult issues in a democratic and open way
Through community dialogues, we can lead the conversation about the harms of erasure in all its forms. As I noted, we are planning activities that we hope will deepen our collective understanding. By exploring slavery, its legacies, and a multiplicity of injustices rooted in similar forms of erasure, we will seek to expand and inform our thinking, teaching, learning, and actions.

Challenge the narratives and myths of American history
As a public health community, we are no strangers to our culture’s tendency to erase and diminish uncomfortable subjects—the needless death toll of this pandemic, the destructive impacts of climate change in a world on fire from it, the terrible cost of racial and ethnic health disparities, and the list goes on. Let Harvard’s investment in confronting its past inspire you to seek out buried facts and untold stories, dive beneath the surface—and use what you learn to help us build a better and more equitable world. I am reminded of a saying on my wall by Arthur Ashe, who grew up in segregated Richmond, Virginia and went on to become a trailblazing African American tennis player: “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”

• Recognize the incredible resilience of those who thrive in adversity
When it comes to higher learning, what matters is not just what is taught at a university, but what is not. The painful narrative unearthed by this report made me appreciate even more the extraordinary stories of Black resilience and achievement during an era of the most extreme structural and institutional racism. This report raises up some of these stories and gives them a measure of long-overdue recognition. I’m thinking of the remarkable work of individuals like Joshua Bowen Smith, a free Black man who was hired to cater Harvard functions in the 1850s and 1860s —and who was an ardent and effective abolitionist. I’m thinking of Eva Beatrice Dykes, who was one of three Black women in the country to complete a PhD in 1921. And of Ralph Bunche, a Black man who earned a PhD from Harvard in 1934, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950 for brokering a cease fire in the Middle East, and fought for civil rights at home. We must do more to elevate the accomplishments of scholars and activists like these—and teach not just their works, but the context in which their work took place. These are men and women who have resisted erasure in all its forms, despite ferocious discrimination. Let’s be sure we’re telling, and honoring, their stories.

As you can no doubt tell, reading this report moved me powerfully. It brought home to me the painful realization of how methodically—for the better part of its history—Harvard has erased Black and Indigenous people, Jewish people, and women of all colors and ethnicities. A century ago, many of us would not have been admitted nor allowed into this hallowed space.

But here is another truth: We are here now—and we are just getting started.

Harvard was founded in 1636. Against that timeline, its embrace of diversity is recent. And yet look what we’ve done! Myself, I am a Jamaican girl from Queens, the oldest of four children, the daughter of remarkable parents who had no more than nine years formal education between them, and I rose to become the first Black female dean of a Harvard graduate school. I see my own story reflected in an increasing number of our students, faculty, and staff. As the report makes clear, remarkable Black leaders, despite facing discrimination or plain indifference during their studies, have advanced progress at Harvard and around the world for generations. Yes, we have far to go, but we must also recognize how far we’ve come. This report is another step on that journey.

I know our Harvard Chan community is committed to pursuing excellence in a way that honors all contributions and seeks to elevate, not erase, all backgrounds. We won’t always get everything right. We will always keep at it. For it is only by embracing this diversity and collaborating with open hearts and minds that we that we can tackle the world’s most formidable problems.

Let’s take this report and together use it to build a better future for everyone.


Michelle A. Williams, ScD
Dean of the Faculty, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Angelopoulos Professor in Public Health and International Development,
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Kennedy School

Community Resources
• Lilu Barbosa, Chan School Chief Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging Officer,, 617-432-0215
• Harvard Chaplains, 617-495-5529,
• University Ombudsman, 617-495-7748, – provides confidential forum for students, faculty, and staff whose concerns are affecting their work or studies
Student Resources
• Maritza Hernandez, Associate Dean for Student Services,
• Colleen Cronin, Associate Director of Student Affairs,
• Harvard University Counseling and Mental Health Services Cares Line, 617-495-2042 (24/7),
Faculty and Staff Resources
• Jennifer Ivers in Faculty Affairs,; Linda Picard in Human Resources,; or Harvard’s Employee Assistance Program, 877-327-4278 (877-EAP-HARV).