By Ted Gup
Ted Gup is an author and a journalism professor at Emerson College.
Last week, a university governing board declared that the time-honored seal of Harvard Law School must be retired because it is tied to that of a slave-holding family that funded the school’s first professorship more than 200 years ago.
With that decision, Harvard is about to slide down what lawyers like to call the “slippery slope,” which could produce a wave of both comic and dangerous results. I say this having steeped myself in the university’s archives over the past decade, focusing on issues of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and other expressions of prejudice. I fear that if the university is bent on expunging all major remnants of what is today seen as morally repugnant, nothing will be left of Harvard as we know it. House names, professorships, busts and portraits will have to be removed, for if Harvard has been home to many great minds, it has also been home to many closed ones — like other American institutions. If this is followed to its logical conclusion, Harvard will undergo nothing short of total self-renunciation. Consider this much-abbreviated litany of offenses:
The Dudleian Lecture is given annually at the Harvard School of Divinity, but its roots are darkened by virulent anti-Catholicism. Paul Dudley, chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, in 1750 bequeathed funds for a series of four rotating lecture topics. One of those was to be an attack on the pope and Catholicism, representing widespread suspicions of the church at that time. That oration was for the purpose of “exposing the idolatry of the Romish Church, their tyranny, usurpations, damnable heresies, fatal errors, abominable superstitions.”
Fearing that it might lose the bequest if it did not comply, Harvard hosted anti-Catholic harangues for nearly 150 years. Only at the dawn of the 20th century did it liberate itself from such odious terms, but the name remains and the lectureship enjoys a lofty place on the Divinity School’s calendar. Must it now be changed?
Or what of the endowed chair named for Richard Pearson Strong? Strong’s research into tropical diseases doubtless saved lives — but it also took lives in a particularly gruesome way. In 1906, as part of experiments with inmates in the Philippines’ Bilibid Prison, Strong administered doses of various dread diseases, cigarettes being the inducement for participation. One of these experiments in pursuit of a vaccine went terribly awry after he injected 24 prisoners with cholera tainted with plague. Thirteen died. Seven years later, when Strong was appointed a professor, Harvard hailed his efforts at “overcoming conditions which made life in the tropics almost impossible for white men and dangerous and enervating even to natives.”
And what of Clarence James Gamble, grandson of the founder of Procter & Gamble, and the professorship in economics and demography that carries his name? The official Harvard entry on Gamble describes him as a “man with a mission for using his considerable wealth and intellectual expertise for the good of mankind.” But Gamble’s “mission” was not so pure. In 1947, he helped found the Human Betterment League, which promoted involuntary sterilizations, targeting society’s most vulnerable — epileptics, the “feeble-minded” and others deemed undesirable.
Then there’s the professorship of literature named for Ernest Bernbaum, a literary scholar. But he was also director of the School for Anti-Suffrage Speakers, which helped lead the opposition to women voting. In 1916, just four years before ratification of the 19th Amendment, Bernbaum remained an oft-cited authority on why women were wholly unsuited for politics and the ballot.
And can Harvard Law School make peace with the Oliver Wendell Holmes Lectures? These honor the Supreme Court justice who authored the 1927Buck v. Bell decision that led to the sterilization of epileptics, the “feeble-minded” and, like Carrie Buck herself, the poor who were neither epileptic nor feeble-minded. A New York Times reviewer recently called it “one of the ugliest cases” in the court’s history and cited Holmes’s notorious declaration that “three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
And the Perkins Professorship of Astronomy and Mathematics, named for James Perkins Jr., who died in 1822? Then-Harvard President Josiah Quincy III said he “was formed on the noblest and purest model of professional uprightness,” but Perkins made much of his fortune trading in slaves and shipping opium to China.
And what of Shaler Hall, named for Nathaniel Shaler, a celebrated professor who, in 1890, wrote “the African is not as good material as either of the original stocks; that it has not the vital energy and the character required for the uses of the state. The African and European races must remain distinct in blood”? A recent University of Alabama anthropology course named Shaler“one of the most influential racists in American history.”
And how can the Lowell House survive modern scrutiny? What of then-Harvard President Abbott Lawrence Lowell’s “Secret Court,” which in 1920 prosecuted students suspected of being gay, banished them not only from campus but also from the city of Cambridge and hounded some of them for years? What of Lowell’s efforts to impose a quota on the number of Jewish students? And wasn’t the family’s wealth derived from mills that relied on slave-picked cotton?
Or Eliot House? Harvard’s president Charles W. Eliot may have helped catapult Harvard into the first ranks, but he was also a segregationist. And Stoughton Hall, named for a judge of the Salem witch trials? And . . . And . . .
There is no end to Harvard’s offenders — or Yale’s or Princeton’s or, for that matter, most American institutions with a history. Few entities can withstand the scrutiny of the modern conscience, and physically disassembling the artifacts of the past, attacking its symbols and its ghosts, is a fool’s errand — no matter how lofty the cause. It illuminates little and is a feel-good distraction that comes at the expense of today’s very real crises. And picking and choosing which ancient offenses warrant purging creates the danger of prioritizing one historically disadvantaged group over another, inadvertently importing into our own age the very toxins of bigotry that activists now seek to condemn.
We can endlessly denounce the long-departed and disavow the already-discredited, but to what end? What we should do instead is devote ourselves to living our lives in a way that allows our descendants to take pride in the history we leave behind.