Meagan Flynn, Washington Post, November 6, 2019
In an urgently worded letter recently sent to Harvard, Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne demanded that the university pay his country reparations ‘‘for the gains Harvard enjoyed at the expense’’ of Antiguan slaves.
Browne’s Oct. 30 letter to Harvard University President Lawrence Bacow — reported Tuesday night by the Miami Herald and Harvard Crimson — draws a direct line from Harvard Law School’s success today to the oppression of Antiguans enslaved by a Massachusetts-based plantation owner in the colonial era.
That plantation owner was Isaac Royall Jr. — the wealthy benefactor of Harvard’s very first law professorship in 1815, whose name is still attached to Harvard’s distinguished Royall Professor of Law position today.
“We consider Harvard’s failure to acknowledge its obligations to Antigua and the stain it bears from benefiting from the blood of our people as shocking if not immoral,” Browne wrote.
Though the university hasn’t committed to reparations, Harvard also taken steps to extensively research and acknowledge its ties to slavery, particularly related to Royall. Under pressure from students, Harvard Corporation decided in 2016 to retire the Harvard Law School shield, which bore the Royall family coat of arms. And in 2017 the university erected a stone memorial and plaque honoring “the enslaved whose labor created wealth that made possible the founding of Harvard Law School.”
But to Browne, the acknowledgment has not been enough. The university, Browne wrote, has failed to take steps to make more concrete amends with Antigua through reparations. He claimed the university has ignored Antiguan officials’ past requests to begin discussing how reparations could work. He suggested in his letter that Harvard could offer financial assistance to the University of the West Indies campus in Antigua & Barbuda.
“Reparation from Harvard would compensate for its development on the backs of our people,” Browne wrote. “Reparation is not aid; it is not a gift; it is compensation to correct the injustices of the past and restore equity. Harvard should be in the forefront of this effort.”
Harvard officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment late Tuesday. But Bacow responded to Browne in a letter on Tuesday, the Crimson reported.
“We recognize that there is more work to be done,’’ Bacow wrote. “Indeed, Harvard is determined to take additional steps to explore this institution’s historical relationship with slavery and the challenging moral questions that arise when confronting past injustices and their legacies.”
[Editor’s Note: The complete text of the prime minister’s letter is available at the original story.]