Posted on September 16, 2022

As Harvard Makes Amends for Its Ties to Slavery, Descendants Ask, What Is Owed?

Anemona Hartocollis, New York Times, September 12, 2022

On a cloudy day this summer, Roberta Wolff-Platt paid a visit to Christ Church, a short walk from Harvard Yard. Standing at the edge of a crypt in the church basement, she marveled that her ancestor Darby Vassall, born enslaved, had been buried here, improbably sharing a grave with the couple who owned his parents.

Ms. Wolff-Platt, who is 80, learned just a few years ago that she was related to the Vassalls. That revelation led to an even more surprising connection to Harvard University — a place she had lived near much of her life but where she had never imagined she belonged.

Thanks to a student research project on the university’s ties to slavery, she and her extended family have become the first to be publicly identified as descendants of enslaved men and women who served Harvard’s presidents, professors and — in their case — benefactors.


Now she has been swept up in Harvard’s campaign, announced in April, to make amends for its collusion in the slave trade. As part of that effort, Harvard plans to trace the lineage of enslaved people at the college to the present day, saying that direct acknowledgment of lineage “is a vital step in its quest for truth, reconciliation and repair.”

Harvard joins universities like Georgetown, Brown and the University of Virginia in trying to atone for their links to slavery by erecting monuments, renaming buildings and, in Georgetown’s case, offering the children of descendants the equivalent of legacy status for admission.

Harvard has pledged $100 million, largely as an endowment, to its project. If the experience of other universities is any guide, it is likely to be a contentious process. Both the university and the descendants are debating, What is justice now, not only for the families of the enslaved, but for society?


Ms. Wolff-Platt first learned of her connection to enslaved people from James Shea, a former curator at Longfellow House, a national historic site in Cambridge, when they were both doing research on in about 2016. But it was Carissa Chen, a Harvard student, who underlined the Harvard connection.

In the winter of 2020, Ms. Chen took a course on Harvard and slavery, taught by Sven Beckert, an eminent historian. She said she was curious about whether she could find any descendants of people enslaved at Harvard, and began searching while sequestered at home in Tustin, Calif., during the coronavirus pandemic.

After being foiled by gaps in the records or people dying childless, she managed to find at least 40 living descendants of one couple, Tony and Cuba Vassall, the parents of Darby. The results became part of her senior thesis.


Ms. Wolff-Platt had a long and satisfying career working as a customer representative in the airline industry and, until the pandemic and her age interfered, as a greeter at a casino. {snip}

She does have a cousin, Dennis Earl Lloyd, who has a connection to Harvard. Mr. Lloyd, 75, a retired advertising manager for The Boston Globe, grew up in Roxbury, a battleground in the school busing wars. He returned from the Vietnam War to a job as a city youth worker, quelling racial tension.

In the 1970s, he participated in a summer program at the university that aimed to bring more people of color into the medical profession, he said, adding, “It didn’t work for me, but I did learn a lot.”

He particularly likes one part of Harvard’s proposal, which says it will work with historically Black colleges and universities as part of its repair efforts. He has a master’s degree from a historically Black college, Howard University, so that “resonated very strongly with me,” he said.

But Ms. Wolff-Platt and Mr. Lloyd are not on Harvard’s official list of descendants, which is limited to direct descendants of those enslaved on campus or by leadership, faculty or staff — not benefactors.

That exclusion is likely the first of many debates over who is owed reparations, as well as what they are owed. Ms. Wolff-Platt said their newfound place in history has already opened a rift over who should speak for the family and who should be the keeper of the family records.

Kenneth Feinberg, who administered the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, can see many possible conflicts ahead.

“What if there are descendants of Harvard who can’t prove it, but there is some evidence?” Mr. Feinberg asked. “What about all the descendants not of slavery but of Jim Crow — my great-grandfather was lynched, my great-grandfather was a sharecropper, my great-grandfather couldn’t vote?”

Mr. Feinberg’s counterpart at Harvard, in a way, is Martha Minow, a law professor who heads the implementation committee for the project. She brings her expertise on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission to the table. {snip}

For her part, Ms. Wolff-Platt is not expecting a windfall.

“It doesn’t have to go to any one person or group,” she said.

Mr. Lloyd leans toward funding educational advancement. “Some want a check in the mail, others want to establish more of a legacy and an understanding of slavery,” he said.