Friday, May 27, 2011

Confederates in Harvard's Memorial Hall


With the advent of the sesquicentennial, there has been a surge of interest in all things related to the Civil War. At Harvard, this has taken the form of intensified debates over the inclusion of Harvard's Confederate dead in Memorial Hall.

Memorial Hall via Wikipedia

Harvard's Memorial Hall was built in the 1870s as a monument to Harvard's Union war dead. It is a huge, gothic building that houses Annenberg Dining Hall, Sanders Theatre, and a memorial corridor lined with marble plaques that bear the names of 136 Harvard graduates who died while serving with the Union army. The plaque in the center of the transept declares,
This hall commemorates the patriotism of the graduates and student of this university who served in the Army and Navy of the United States during the war for the preservation of the Union and upon these tablets are inscribed the names of those among them who died in that service.

The controversy arises from the fact that the 71 Harvard graduates who died in the Confederate armed forces are not included in this memorial. When the cornerstone for the building was laid (1870), the prevailing sentiment was toward honoring only those soldiers who had fought against treason. During the reconstruction era, Cambridge was still proud to characterize the war as a sacred struggle over both union and slavery, as demonstrated in the sphinx monument at Mount Auburn Cemetery (1872), which bears the text,

Yet, the reconciliationist narrative came to Cambridge as surely as it swept over the rest of the nation. By the time the 50-year celebrations rolled around, there were active efforts to include the names of Harvard's Confederate dead at Memorial Hall. Monuments erected at Yale and Princeton during this era jumbled the names of Union and Confederate dead and honored all as patriots.

In the past year, the campaign to include the Confederate dead in Memorial Hall has ramped up again. Many pro-memorialization advocates have latched onto the fact that Memorial Church (a different building on campus, built in 1932 to commemorate the WWI dead) lists the names of several Harvard men who died serving in the German army in WWI and one Divinity School graduate who died in WWII. Last fall, the Harvard Crimson ran a long article about the differences between the Memorial Hall and Memorial Church commemoration philosophies, in which it quoted Prof. Alan Dershowitz as saying,
The University needs to adopt a policy one way or the other. The current inconsistent standard is unacceptable, and it’s particularly unfortunate that the exception seems to be for a member of the Nazi army, one of the darkest regimes in human history, and a regime with which Harvard had too cozy a relationship.
While I tend to think that Prof. Dershowitz would probably rather see the deletion of German soldiers from Memorial Church than the addition of Confederates to Memorial Hall, others have come to the opposite conclusion. The Harvard Confederate Memorial Initiative is a small, but vocal organization dedicated to advocating for a Confederate memorial at Harvard. You can view their intro video here. Their cause has been getting some attention, not just from the Crimson, but from conservative media outlets like World Net Daily. Last summer, a WND reporter confronted White House press secretary Robert Gibbs over the Memorial Hall issue — Gibbs had no comment. The HCMI also has a Facebook petition (currently rather pathetic at about 130 "likes"). Executive Director Roger McCredie told the Crimson that the HCMI's goal is to correct the historical narrative of "South equal bad. North equal good":
If you want to talk slavery, we can talk slavery all day long and about how no one’s hands are clean from it—including the Fanueil family and the Brown family, both of whom made fortunes on the slave trade. This extremely skewed view of history and of historical perspective has become pandemic—it does not infect merely Harvard; it infects the entire educated and cultural edifice of the United States these days.
Now, I know Mr. McCredie has a particular political agenda to advance, but this sort of thing is rage-inducing. He seems to be confusing Harvard with a mediocre elementary school circa 1990. The Harvard curriculum is hardly trying to cover up Northern complicity in American slavery with courses like Sven Beckert's "Harvard and Slavery" or faculty research like Jill Lepore's New York Burning or events like last month's joint conference with Brown, which was called "Slavery's Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development" and focused on slavery's role in national economic development after the Revolution. When someone claims that academic historians are ignoring or trying to cover up Northern slavery, I know that I can safely disregard everything else in his/her manifesto because he/she clearly has no grasp of what academic historians do. Northern slavery is one of the hottest things going in Early American history at the moment. People who pretend otherwise are willfully ignorant in service of their neo-Confederate politics.

Yet, admittedly, academic historians are notoriously awful about getting the word out about our work. Part of that is our fault (we generally for one another rather than for a wide audience and punish colleagues who try to engage with the public), part is the fault of the structure of history education at the k-12 level (holiday history controlled by politicized state committees and useless AP-driven fact cram later on), part is the fault of public figures who appeal to history as a cover for their own biases (see the entire Scalia oeuvre), and part is the fault of an incurious general public that can't be bothered to read anything more challenging than a David McCullough biography. As an historian with a commitment to public history, I think it would be a great idea to do some public outreach regarding Harvard's role in American slavery and its considerable ties to the Confederacy.

Therefore, I propose the following exhibit:


In the transept of Memorial Hall, two rows of rectangular display pedestals will stand along the East and West walls, each directly under a memorial panel and mirroring the panel in shape and size, though tipped at a slight angle so that visitors can view the contents easily. Each pedestal will display an object or text relating to Harvard's multifaceted role in creating, sustaining, and challenging American slavery and the war that ended it. A final pedestal will stand at the North end of the transept, under the stained glass window, bearing the names of the 71 Harvard students and alumni who gave their lives in support of the Confederacy and its cause — not in violation of their position as Harvard men, but in fulfillment of it.

Examples of objects that would go into these cases:
  • J.T. Zealy / Louis Agassiz Daguerreotypes:
    • In 1850, Harvard's most celebrated naturalist, Louis Agassiz, traveled to South Carolina, where he commissioned a series of photographs of African-born slaves and first-generation African-Americans in an attempt to gather evidence about racial types. Agassiz believed that various races were created separately, and his use of scientific methods, including these photographs, lent his ideas intellectual weight in antebellum America. The daguerreotypes — many of them depicting their subjects nude, in the poses now familiar to us from mug shots — are held by Harvard's Peabody Museum. They are not on display, partly because they are fragile and partly because they are ghastly. For more information, see Molly Rogers' Delia's Tears: Race, Science and Photography in 19th-Century America. This book reprints all of the images in full, something I would not do here, even if I had permission.
  • Portrait of Thomas Wentworth Higginson by Frank Weston Benton (1893)
    • Higginson, a fiery abolitionist who contributed openly to John Brown's cause, was a member of the class of 1841. He was a true radical and found that the reforms brought about by the Civil War fell far short of his hopes for racial justice. In 1904, he gave a Decoration Day speech in Sanders Theatre in which he suggested that Confederates might be included in the tablets in the transept. While some historians (David Blight) have argued that Higginson represents the erasure of abolitionism from Civil War memory, others (W. Scott Poole) argue that Higginson's remarks in 1904 "speak to his own disillusion about the possibilities of nationalism and his doubts about whether or not it could serve as a force for racial justice." Higginson's portrait (along with various quotations) would provide an unparalleled example of the complexity of Harvard's relationships with abolitionism and Civil War memory.
  • Samples of "Negro Cloth" from Rhode Island 1839-1850 from Baker Library (Harvard Business School)
    •  Many Harvard alumni and donors (ex: Francis Cabot Lowell, class of 1793) were industrialists who turned slave-grown Southern cotton into cheap cloth. Some of this material, like the samples above, were manufactured in order to be sent back to Southern plantations to clothe those same slaves. Several cases in this exhibit would be devoted to the Harvard/factory/plantation nexus.
Other cases would showcase other items related to Harvard's historical support of and entanglement with slavery — receipts for gifts from slaveowning or slave-industry alumni, a replica of the gravestone dedicated to Cecily (d. 1713, 13-year-old slave to William Brattle, class of 1680), a fragment of brick from an 18th-century college building built using slave labor, etc. An exhibit like this would probably be the fruit of research conducted in undergraduate seminars (like Prof. Beckert's) and by professors and community members as part of a commission similar to Brown's Committee on Slavery and Justice. Its catalog would probably go on to form part of a larger report by the commission laying bare Harvard's complicity. I know that a report from a steering committee doesn't sound like a very friendly way to get the word out, but there was plenty of interest in Brown's report, and Harvard's would make a bigger splash. People might not read the report, but they would read the NYT article about the report.

In this way, Harvard could engage in meaningful reflection on its institutional history. I think that a public exhibit in Memorial Hall would be a powerful way to write Harvard's Confederate dead back into its story, not with celebration, but with conscience. The point would be to bring context to the names already on the walls in the transept. They were the memorial that Harvard needed in 1870, but we need something more in 2011.

Roger McCredie and others who call for the names of Harvard's Confederate dead to be added to the rolls of honor in Memorial Hall argue that Harvard should acknowledge its role in the development and maintenance of American slavery. I agree. But simply adding the names of Harvard's Confederates would not just acknowledge that role — it would perpetuate it. If Harvard were to take such a bold and public step in favor of a reconciliationist narrative that argues that the Civil War was about personal valor and sacrifice, rather than a struggle over treason in defense of slavery, the institution will have lent its considerable cultural capital to the mythology of the Lost Cause. It will have arrayed what arms it has on the side of a white supremacist, anti-intellectual movement that is stuck in the mindset of the 50th anniversary while the rest of the nation observes the 150th. Luckily, I think there is very little chance that this will happen, particularly under the administration of President Faust, who is, after all, a scholar of the Civil War with a particular interest in memorialization. If the names of Harvard's Confederate dead are added to Memorial Hall — and I hope they are — they must be part of an effort to confront Harvard's institutional complicity, not an attempt to prolong it.


Linda said...

Thanks for an interesting post. Of course, we should not forget that many northerners were active in the slave trade.

I'm reading "Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History" and I recommend it.

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

"Of course, we should not forget that many northerners were active in the slave trade."

That would be the function of this exhibit — to explore Harvard's ties to all aspects of slavery in a way similar to the investigations that have already happened at Brown. Rhode Island has, in general, taken a much more public and proactive approach to exploring its involvement in slavery than Massachusetts has.

jen said...

I love that proposal. I find it fascinating that even after 150 institutions are still unwilling to admit the actual role they played before during and after the civil war.

Todd Bryda said...

What an excellent and thought provoking post! I especially appreciated the mention of the role (or lack thereof) of academic historians in spreading new information. I remember how the hot young turks of my department used to speak dispespectfully of my grad advisor because he was popular with the average, non-professional history reader. Thanks Cait!

Ray O'Hara said...

I will sign any and every petition to keep those who committed treason out of Memorial hall. Are you going to argue that Germans who attended Harvard and fought in the Wehrmacht and SS {yes there were some} be included too?

and the "many in the North were in the Slave Trade" is a phony issue. the CONUS forbade the importation of slaves in 1808, so much for Yankee slave trading, it ended 53 years before the ACW. it is a false issue made by slavery appologists to explain away the sin of the South by trying to blame others

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

@Ray O'Hara

I think we are on the same side of this issue — Memorial Hall should never commemorate Harvard's Confederate way in any way that portrays them or their cause as noble or heroic.

But your dismissal of Harvard's institutional support of slavery is off the mark. Harvard was nearly two centuries old when the international slave trade ban went into effect, and the university had cultivated a deep and lasting relationship to slaves, slavery, and slaveowners during that time. There were slaves living and serving at Harvard as early as 1639. Many of Harvard's early presidents — Mather, Wadsworth, Holyoke — were slaveowners, and plenty of those slaves lived and worked on campus. The college steward in the 18th century, Andrew Boardman, owned half a dozen slaves who were almost certainly involved in cooking, cleaning, and maintenance at the college.

In addition the the work that actual slaves did to support the college, slave-made money was crucial to Harvard's success. Big donors like Isaac Royall, whose gift founded the Law School, made their money on plantations in Antigua and Surinam. In the early 19th century, much of Harvard's endowment was invested in lucrative slave-based businesses.

And beyond the labor and money issues, Harvard's intellectual contributions also supported American slavery. Agassiz's theories of polygenesis provided pro-slavery partisans with scientific cover — his work divining the racial characteristics of South Carolina slaves in the 1850s (w/ help of JHHammond) is chilling stuff. The southerners who attended Harvard in the antebellum era generally had their ideas about slavery confirmed by the curriculum and the university's commitments. The presidents and professors — even those with anti-slavery beliefs — actively discouraged abolitionist events on campus, banning them because they were disruptive.

I would never support adding a plaque to Memorial Hall that says, "Let's Celebrate Harvard's Confederate Dead!" But I would support an exhibit that incorporated their names as part of an exploration of Harvard's centuries-long relationship with slavery. That exhibit should include abolitionists like Thomas Wentworth Higginson and historians like WEB DuBois, who fought a lonely battle against the Lost Cause myth. But I think it's important not to write of Harvard's institutional support of slavery, which was rather more robust than its commitment to abolitionism.

Ray O'Hara said...

Slavery was legal throughout the British Empire in the period you are talking about. That meant it was legal in every American colony.
Slavery was ended in Massachusetts in a 1780 court case that relied on the State Constitution on 1778 which declared all men{people} were born free , that was 81 years before Ft Sumter.{The Quock Walker Case}

The impression your claim about Harvard and the North concerning slavery could give someone who didn't know better the idea that the things you are trying to point out were ongoing and hadn't ended over 3/4s of a century earlier.

I've been to Memorial many times for concerts at the beautiful Sanders Theater which is in the Hall, it is a great venue with excellent accoustics. One thing I always look for is if anyone other than myself pays any attention to the tablets with the names of the fallen, sadly no one seems to bother. That is until I sidle up and start pointing out names. Robert Gould Shaw and Caldwell plus a few other very rich "Yankees" like a Phillips{of the Academies family} and a Crowninshield {a very wealthy family even to this day} gets them looking and reading.

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

@Ray O'Hara

I'm not really sure what your point is.

Harvard has a long history of connections to slavery. I think that the institution should explore and acknowledge that history.

In addition to being a Harvard student, I am also a Brown grad. I was at Brown when the Committee on Slavery and Justice was preparing its report. It was a very powerful project that confronted institutional history without fear. I think that Harvard should be doing something similar, and that part of it will have to include an acknowledgement that so many Harvard grads died in the cause of treason in defense of slavery. Again, not to glorify them, but to excavate our university's complicity.

Ray O'Hara said...

Harvard's connection to slavery ended when slavery ended in Massachusetts in 1780, during the Revolution.

Harvard got out of any connection then and the University itself didn't own any slaves or sell anybody any slaves.

Like I said these attempts are nothing more than an attempt to whitewash the South for their actions in the 1860s by trying to say others did it too while conveniently ignoring that was 80 years earlier.

Before the Revolution slavery was legal in all the Colonies, no one disputes that. after the Northern States began abolishing it. This seems an attempt to tar them forever for something that was legal when a different country ran America.

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

"Harvard's connection to slavery ended when slavery ended in Massachusetts in 1780, during the Revolution."

That is not true. Harvard made oodles and oodles of money off of its investments in slave-based industries in the 19th century. And Harvard would have been very different without slavery — no law school, no med school, etc. — so the connections were ongoing. Harvard faculty and students were also producers of the intellectual movements (including racial science) that made helped make slavery and racism so hard to fight.

"Harvard got out of any connection then and the University itself didn't own any slaves or sell anybody any slaves."

This may be true, but it probably isn't. I wouldn't bet against the possibility that some alumnus from Virginia left a plantation to Harvard in 1840 and then the University sold off the slaves. I don't know. But I think that a well-funded commission should find out.

"Like I said these attempts are nothing more than an attempt to whitewash the South for their actions in the 1860s by trying to say others did it too while conveniently ignoring that was 80 years earlier."

I don't deny that there are lots of people trying justify their neo-confederate politics by saying, "Hey the North was just as bad." Those people are generally not worth listening to because they are ideologues. However, I do not think that Harvard should be held hostage by their blather — a thorough self-examination is a worthy goal. You seem to be under the impression that I have some sort of Lost Cause sympathies, but I don't. I do think that Harvard's reluctance to engage meaningfully with its deep ties to slavery is cowardly and I am committed to advocating this point, both as an historian and as a progressive Harvard student.

"This seems an attempt to tar them forever for something that was legal when a different country ran America."

Harvard (and Massachusetts and the alumni) always ran Harvard. My interest is in having the university grapple with its institutional history, not in "tarring" anyone. We deserve to know what deeds created our institution. We deserve to know the legacy that we have inherited. We are morally obligated to confront the actions of our predecessors and learn from them. Sweeping them under the rug doesn't make them go away, it just makes us ignorant.

Ray O'Hara said...

Massachusetts never ran Harvard as it has always been a private institution. and of course you can provide links that show Harvard was actively promoting slavery.

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

I think you'll find that Harvard operates under a charter granted by the General Court of Massachusetts. The Massachusetts government had a hand in running Harvard throughout the colonial period, particularly through the enactment of sweetheart deals on land and land use. Also, Massachusetts provided substantial direct funding to Harvard in the antebellum period. For example, please see the Massachusetts General Court's Act for the encouragement of Literature, Piety and Morality, and the useful Arts and Sciences (1814) which imposed a tax on banks and provided Harvard with approximately $10,000 per year (a large part of its operating budget in the antebellum era). You should also consult Chapter 5 of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts — the one entitled, "The University at Cambridge."

It is a bit difficult to link to documents that are behind the Harvard ID wall (or not available online) — a fact that I hope will change with the establishment of a Harvard Slavery and Justice Commission! It does seem a bit rich for you to argue against public display of Harvard's ties to slavery and then ask for links to sources that are, unfortunately, mostly in manuscript form at the moment. If you have a chance to go to the Harvard archives, ask for Barbara Meloni — she's the Public Services Archivist and may be able to guide you in viewing some of the original documents.

Students in Sven Beckert's class have been doing a lot of great research on Harvard's antebellum endowment, but the project needs more funding and more access (and researchers who are knowledgeable about investments). We know some things — for example, in 1840, 55% of Harvard's endowment was invested in loans and mortgages. Some of these loans were made to merchants trading in slave-made goods. Also, many of Harvard's major antebellum donors (Benjamin Bussey, Abbott Lawrence, Peter Brooks, etc.) built their fortunes in slave-based industries (shipping, textiles, insurance).

I don't pretend to be an expert in financial history, but I urge you to look for a pamphlet (which is in press right now) that contains an overview of Prof. Beckert's students' work, including a paper written by a student at the extension school who is a banker and took a semester trying to decipher some of Harvard's loans to slave-based industries. Unfortunately, we have not been able to produce very many of these pamphlets, but the hope is that they will stir interest in creating an investigative commission. I hope I will be able to provide some links to places where it can be viewed or purchased as soon as it comes back from the printers.

On the political side, you might look into President Josiah Quincy's prohibition on abolitionist meetings on campus (he shut down a debate on abolition that was supposed to held at the Divinity School in 1838).

For Agassiz's role in promoting racialized science, you need only Google. In particular, read a good section of Josiah Nott and George Gliddon's Types of Mankind (1854), especially the preface written by Agassiz himself.

In the end, I'm still not sure of your point. I think that Harvard's centuries-long ties to slavery should be investigated and made available to both the Harvard community and the general public. This includes everything from alumnus Samuel Sewall's The Selling of Joseph (1700) to the ledger recording the births of Andrew Boardman's slaves, from investments in cotton plantations to the four justices (alums all ) who sat on the Massachusetts court during the Quock Walker case.

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

The previous comment got too long for Blogger to publish.

If you are genuinely interesting in this topic, you may want to begin your readings with an essay/speech by Janet Haley, the Royall Professor of Law at HLS. She grapples with the history of her endowed chair:

My Isaac Royall Legacy

In the end, no good comes of keeping Harvard's history hidden. I don't really understand the impulse to protect the university.

If you are worried about neo-confederates misusing such an investigation, I can sort of understand that. It's true that it might be used for bad ends by political ideologues, but I don't think that chance outweighs the good that such a report could do.

If you are worried about protecting the university's reputation, I just can't wrap my head around that. Harvard doesn't need us to protect it by pretending that it was or is perfect — it needs us to be self-reflective, honest, and striving toward knowledge and social justice. I also think that we, as Harvard affiliates, owe it to the world to expose the extent to which our institution, along with others both public and private (banks, corporations, colleges, the Federal Government, etc.), benefited from and supported slavery. How can we claim to be committed to social justice if we cannot even bear to look at our own dirty laundry, let alone air it?

Tamara Lanier said...

I have Census information that confirms that Renty was my Grandfather and Delia was my Aunt

Anonymous said...

Have you seen Brian Knep's piece temporarily installed in Memorial Hall several years ago? He didn't use the Confederate names, but rather identified them by relationship. His focus was on unhealed wounds, not slavery, but I thought you might find it interesting.