KOLIN BINKLEY and MICHAEL MELIA – Associated Press
Boston (AP) – Egypt Lloyd could not hold back tears when she saw the names – her ancestors, Tony, Cuba and Darby – in a study that describes the involvement of Harvard University in the American slave trade.
Lloyd grew up nearby, in Boston’s Roxbury district, but her family only recently learned about ancestors who were held as slaves by Harvard benefactors during the first decades of the famous institution.
“I felt like my ancestors were saying ‘Thank you, God,’ for finally showing up,” the 42-year-old Lloyd said. “I think it’s the first step to healing.”
Among the most stunning discoveries in the Harvard report was a list of more than 70 people held as slaves by leaders and supporters of Harvard, often on campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, or near it. Their living descendants are estimated at tens of thousands, including some who have lived and worked in the Boston area unaware that their family ties to the Ivy League school.
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The report from Harvard came with a promise to make up for his grievances and the profits he received from cotton, sugar, and other trades that relied on slave labor. Harvard, the country’s oldest and wealthiest college, said it would set up a $ 100 million fund to make a number of recommendations in the report.
Among them is a call to identify the descendants of slaves and establish relationships with them to help them “rebuild their history, tell their stories and gain new knowledge.”
For Lloyd and other descendants, this discovery brought sadness and joy.
The Lloyd family learned that she was descended from Darby Vassal, son of Tony and Cuba, an enslaved couple supported by a wealthy family who helped found Harvard Law School. Darby later became an abolitionist and a prominent figure in the free black community of Boston.
“They’re still living through me, they’re still living through my kids, they’re still living through my dad,” said Lloyd, who lives outside of Atlanta and founded a drone service company. “We can’t change the past, but we can heal, and it can make us stronger.”
This was all the more stunning given her family’s occasional encounters with Harvard. Her sister Jordan, for example, once worked there as a waitress.
Researchers from Harvard have been studying this topic for years and have so far found several dozen living descendants. They estimate there may be more than 50,000 people scattered across the United States.
The Lloyd family learned of their origins in 2019 through Karisa Chen, who was then a Harvard student who researched the school’s role in slavery under the guidance of a history professor.
“Descendants often responded with complete shock,” Chen, now a Rhodes scholar in Oxford, said in an email. “Some felt a wave of joy and excitement, others reacted with a grim sense of understanding and loss.”
79-year-old Roberta Wolf also learned just a few years ago that she is descended from Darby the Vassal. Wolf grew up in South Boston, just miles from Harvard. It was the first time she had learned about slavery in her family tree.
“Wow, that was extraordinary. It’s still stunning, ”she said.
Wolff aspired to become a nurse, but her family did not have the money to pay for college. She has worked for airlines for more than three decades, working at ticket offices and other jobs at airports across the country, raising a family. Most recently, she worked at a casino near her home in Bellingham, Massachusetts, before the pandemic.
She hopes Harvard, through these efforts, will find a way to help students who are struggling.
“I hope Harvard will try to reinvest some of its slavery-related resources so we can help other children in public schools, such as helping afflicted and low-income communities and help students get into college. That would be a great idea, ”she said.
Some others doubt Harvard’s commitment. Tamara Lanier considers the report a “PR move” and fears that no significant action will be taken.
Lanier, 59, of Norwich, Connecticut, fights Harvard in court, is trying to obtain ownership of several photographs of 1850, which show two ancestors who were at that time enslaved in South Carolina. The photos were commissioned by a Harvard scholar whose discredited ideas were used to support slavery.
Harvard has used the images to promote its own research into slavery and states that the university is the rightful owner.
“The way they treated the descendants of the slaves, particularly my family, is shameful,” she said. “I lost faith in Harvard that they would do the right thing.”
A new Harvard report urges the university to “make significant monetary commitments” in its reparation efforts, but it does not recommend passing financial reparations to descendants. Some critics say reparations should be part of the effort, especially given the $ 53 billion Harvard fund.
Lloyd is one of those who believes that Harvard should make a direct contribution to the descendants. But she also wants funding to support education and further research. Last year, her family formed the Coalition on the History of Slavery, a group in Boston that aims to honor the lives of slaves and fight the legacy of slavery.
“I’m not looking for Harvard to make me rich,” she said. “We would like them to come together and support our coalition. Because we are all in this together. “
Melia reported from Hartford, Connecticut.
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