I was reading an academic article yesterday and came across a reference to a 1952 cross burning at Harvard, as white students protested 8 black students living in a dorm. One of those students was J. Max Bond, who would late become a leading architect, not to mention being the cousin of Julian Bond. I was curious to see if Harvard had done anything to remember this really horrible incident, as it was the first I had heard of it. Turns out, no.
Max’s widow, Jean Carey Bond, a writer, teacher, and activist, had prepared an 11-page recollection of his life. In it, she noted that Max entered Harvard at age 15, finished in three years, graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. Yet shortly after his fifteenth birthday, he was welcomed by the burning cross. Even more outrageously, wrote Ms. Bond in the handout, he was subsequently threatened by the Harvard administration (presumably to protect the University’s image) that any black student who reported the incident to the Boston media would be suspended.
But Max and Lou Sharpe, co-chair of the Harvard Society for Minority Rights, defied the threat, and a story or short account of the cross-burning appeared in The Crimson, the Boston Globe, the Boston Herald, the New York Times, and elsewhere, in the U.S. and abroad. As someone (white) whose work and personal life are replete with anti-racism activities, I decided I’d try to get Harvard at least to apologize for their alleged threat (and the censorship that threat would have constituted). While this is a very different era in U.S. race relations and one hopes that such an event would not happen today, past incidents of racist behavior certainly deserve an apology, if only for its educational or symbolic value.
I first wrote a letter to the editor of Harvard Magazine. Next I went to the top: On Sept. 2, 2009, I wrote University President Drew Gilpin Faust, recently appointed as Harvard’s first female president, referring to my just-published letter, summarizing the history, and urging an institutional apology. Indeed, Brown University had just recently apologized for its own racial history. In return, Faust wrote me, essentially asking for documentation of the threat and clearly reluctant to accede to my request.
While I made some real effort to locate such documentation, attempting to contact the relevant deans at the time, such historical documents are essentially closed to researchers; contacting those of Max’s fellow black students whom I could find (some of whom—more than five decades later—had only dim memories of the incident), but who were unable to pass on to me any firm proof of who made the threat, to whom, and in what form.
President Faust’s response struck me as truly off-putting and defensive—no offer to search the archives (by me or someone else) for relevant documentation, no willingness to contact Jean Carey Bond or their children to find out what Max had told them of that incident, no trust that Jean was accurately reporting something Max had conveyed to her. President Faust’s words: “Unfortunately, in a university as old as ours there will be many regrettable incidents involving administrators whose values are different from ours, and not all of them are easily verifiable after much time has passed… [The] episodes described in your letter to the magazine are particularly egregious and make painful reading. I do appreciate your bringing them to my attention.”
Of course Drew Gilpin Faust, one of the nation’s leading Civil War historians, has been a general embarrassment as Harvard president to anyone who thinks historians should apply the lessons about injustice that they write about to the present. Really shameful. Harvard needs to do something to apologize for this and commemorate it on campus.