Ta-Nehisi Coates told a group of students and faculty at Harvard that if the school really wants to atone for its past sins, it needs to pay up.
The Ivy League school held a conference on March 3 called “Universities and Slavery: Bound By History,” which aimed to unpack the university’s own past involvement in the institution of slavery.
The day-long event included several panels and speakers, with the university’s president Drew G. Faust giving the opening remarks. “Harvard was directly complicit in slavery from the college’s earliest days in the 17th century,” said Faust, according to The Harvard Crimson. “This history and its legacy have shaped our institution in ways we have yet to fully understand.”
Research conducted by Harvard students in 2007 revealed that two Harvard presidents actually owned slaves on the campus, and that the university periodically accepted large donations from wealthy slave owners.
Coates, who was the keynote speaker at the conference, reportedly received loud applause when he called on Harvard and other complicit institutions to pay reparations for slavery.
“I think every single one of these universities needs to make reparations,” Coates said.
“I don’t know how you conduct research that shows that your very existence is rooted in a great crime, and just say well, shrug—and maybe at best say ‘I’m sorry’—and you walk away.”
Coates added that he believes it’s important that institutions not shy away from this discussion, uncomfortable as it may be.
“I think you need to use the language of reparation,” he said. “I think it’s very, very important to actually say that word, to acknowledge that something was done in these institutions.”