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‘A Joke’: Nikole Hannah-Jones Says Harvard Should Spend More on Legacy of Slavery Initiative

Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones speaks at the University's Legacy of Slavery Symposium on Tuesday.
Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones speaks at the University's Legacy of Slavery Symposium on Tuesday. By Marina Qu
By Neeraja S. Kumar and Annabel M. Yu, Crimson Staff Writers

BOSTON — Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and creator of the 1619 Project, slammed Harvard’s $100 million commitment to its Legacy of Slavery initiative as “a joke” during her keynote talk at the University’s Legacy of Slavery Symposium on Tuesday evening.

The discussion, moderated by Harvard student Kiersten B. Hash ’25, followed a series of panel discussions, speeches, receptions, and even performances to discuss the theme of “Reckoning with History, and Shaping the Future” at the two-day symposium.

Dozens of people, including former Harvard President Claudine Gay, attended the symposium in-person at the Museum of African American History.

Gay’s predecessor, former Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow, pledged $100 million in 2022 to implement the recommendations from the presidential committee on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery.

During the symposium, Hannah-Jones likened the $100 million endowment to a “rounding error,” when compared to how much Harvard had profited off of slavery.

Though Hannah-Jones expressed appreciation towards the University’s commitment to research and uncover the truth behind its financial and institutional ties to slavery, she said that “no reckoning has occurred.”

“The truth-telling is just the beginning,” she said. “We’re not even close to a reckoning.”

In a Wednesday email to The Crimson, Harvard spokesperson Jason A. Newton said the University is grateful for “thoughtful and critical perspectives on how we can continue to advance the work of addressing systemic inequities impacting descendant communities.”

He said the initiative is “committed to advancing this work ​​alongside partners across the University and the broader community.”

Hannah-Jones also discussed how the unraveling of Harvard’s Legacy of Slavery report was a belated acknowledgement of “the truth that everybody already knows.”

“Because we have been and faced denial of both the institution of slavery and its ongoing legacy for so long,” she said.

Upon finding out during the event that Harvard has earmaked $2 million for its for the reparative partnership grant program, Hannah-Jones called the amount “insulting” to descendants.

“A true investment would be hundreds of millions more,” she said.

In an interview with The Crimson, Hannah-Jones also said that she was interested in “how the funds are being spent and distributed,” which some descendants and advocates have said are outlined too vaguely.

“If you are serious about an acknowledgement and trying to make repair, transparency is the number one thing because why would people trust an institution with this history to do the right thing,” she said.

During her speech, she also described initiatives to rename buildings on Harvard’s campus honoring historical Harvard leaders and faculty who owned slaves or had financial ties to slavery — such as the student-led effort to dename Winthrop House — as “critical.”

“Absolutely these should be renamed,” Hannah-Jones said. “We have to say that we are not going to hold up people who were engaged in one of the worst human rights atrocities in the history of the world.”

In addition to dedicating more funding to descendants, Hannah-Jones recommended the implementation of “a lineage-based affirmative action program” based on ancestral ties to individuals who were enslaved, full-ride scholarships to descendants, and giving “a substantial sum” of Harvard’s endowment to historically Black colleges and universities.

“All the HBCUs combined don’t have the endowment of Harvard alone,” she said.

Hannah-Jones also commented on how the impact of Harvard’s affirmative action Supreme Court case reaches far beyond just admission into elite colleges.

“They're using that law to sue every type of program that even mentions race,” Hannah-Jones said.

She urged Harvard affiliates to continue to fight for what they see as right in an era where institutions like Harvard have shown “a bunch of cowardice.”

“We have to be beyond that,” she said. “We have to be demanding more.”

Correction: April 26, 2024

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Harvard paid more than $2 million to descendants of those who were enslaved on Harvard’s campus or enslaved by Harvard faculty. In fact, the University earmarked $2 million for its reparative partnership grant program.

—Staff writer Neeraja S. Kumar can be reached at

—Staff writer Annabel M. Yu can be reached at Follow her on X @annabelmyu.

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