Student journalist discovers Harvard KKK photo, racist history

One image sparked a year of research by Simon J. Levien that explored the university's racist past

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A photo from 1924 of members of the Ku Klux Klan casually posed in full garb on the campus of Harvard University inspired a student journalist to dig deeper into the institution’s past.

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The Washington Post reported that the image, titled “Harvard Class Day — Class Day at Harvard, Klans Klass 21 — have fun,” was taken by Massachusetts photographer Leslie Jones. None of the students are identified by name and their identities are covered by the hooded masks.

Harvard KKK (Boston Public Library)

Simon J. Levien found the photo and decided to explore the Harvard of decades past. Through his year of research, he looked through student newspapers and university archives, then interviewed current professors and alumni who were on campus 65 years ago.

He shared with the news outlet that he and other professors who research the school’s history were disappointed in Harvard’s lack of reckoning with its past.

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A view of the campus of Harvard University on July 08, 2020 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

“If you type ‘Harvard’ and ‘The KKK’ in our library database, a lot will come up; it’s surprisingly not that buried,” Levien said to the Post.

According to the report, the Harvard branch of the KKK was founded in 1921 and the group organizing on campus would not have been a rarity.

“[The Klan photo] was in stark contrast to the rest of the collection,” Levien said to the outlet.

Although there were not many more photos of the KKK, Levien did uncover documented incidents of racism on campus, including a cross-burning that took place in the 1950s.

In his 4500-word feature for The Harvard Crimson, the student explored the incident through letters written by Black students on campus at the time. J. Max Bond Jr., class of 1955, who entered Harvard at 16 was among 15 Black students in his class.

Most of the Black students lived in the same area of campus. During the spring semester of his freshman year, a wooden cross was erected in front of their residence. At midnight, it was lit on fire.

“Some of the onlookers cheered when, after ten minutes, the cross was knocked down, but we are sorry to say that others expressed indignation at its destruction. Minutes later a Negro student passing thru the Yard was hailed with remarks such as might be expected in the Klan-dominated States of the South,” Bond and fellow student James Bows, Jr., wrote in a letter uncovered by Levien.

“We do not feel that this demonstration can be dismissed as a prank; a burning cross carries with it so many unpleasant associations that it cannot be simply laughed off. The very fact that some could see it as funny reveals a lamentable perspective.”

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A view of the statue of John Harvard on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

After he graduated from Harvard, Bond became a prominent architect, according to the Post. He passed in 2009, however, he documented the life-changing incident in biographies and an 11-page retelling of his life.

“The administration called it a prank,” Levien said to the Post. “Obviously, [Bond] did not think it was a prank.”

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The university recently faced backlash for the messaging on its Anti-Asian racism resources landing page, Newsweek reported.

“When you experience racism, you can feel shame,” the website read, according to the report. “You may wish that you weren’t Asian, but remember that your ancestors likely went through similar or even worse incidents.”

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