Leaked report: Harvard museum contains remains of 19 formerly enslaved people and nearly 7,000 indigenous people

Committee chairperson displeased that the student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, published "outdated" information.

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A draft report leaked to Harvard University’s campus newspaper alleges that the Ivy League school possesses the human remains of 19 people of African descent who were likely enslaved at the time of their death, as well as the remains of nearly 7,000 Native American people.

The draft report was created by the university’s Steering Committee on Human Remains in Harvard Museum Collections, which was formed in January 2021, according to The Harvard Crimson. The committee report contains recommendations, including how the institution should treat the human remains in its collections and a speedy return to rightful owners. A 1990 federal edict requires the university to return the Native American remains.

A draft report leaked to Harvard University’s campus newspaper alleges the Ivy League school still possesses the human remains of nearly 7,0000 Native American people, despite a 1990 federal edict to return them. (Photo: Chastity Pratt, Detroit Free Press via Imagn Content Services, LLC)

Harvard professor Evelynn M. Hammonds, who heads the steering committee, expressed disappointment that the student newspaper leaked the report, it noted in its coverage. In a statement earlier this week, she said it was “deeply frustrating that The Harvard Crimson chose to release an initial and incomplete draft report of the Committee on Human Remains.”

“Releasing this draft is irresponsible reporting and robs the Committee of finalizing its report and associated actions, and puts in jeopardy the thoughtful engagement of the Harvard community in its release,” Hammonds contended. “Further, it shares an outdated version with the Harvard community that does not reflect weeks of additional information and Committee work.”

The committee was created after a review of the Peabody Museum of Ethnology and Archaeology, which is run by the university, discovered it held the remains of at least 15 enslaved people. At the time, University President Lawrence S. Bacow apologized “for Harvard’s role in collection practices that placed the academic enterprise above respect for the dead and human decency.”

The group was tasked with surveying all the human remains held by the university’s museums, as well as developing policies on how remains should be managed, creating processes on returning them and possibly creating memorials. 

“Our collection of these particular human remains is a striking representation of structural and institutional racism and its long half-life,” reads the report’s introduction, according to The Crimson

The remains “were obtained under the violent and inhumane regimes of slavery and colonialism; they represent the University’s engagement and complicity in these categorically immoral systems,” it maintains. “Moreover, we know that skeletal remains were utilized to promote spurious and racist ideas of difference to confirm existing social hierarchies and structures.”

Harvard’s museum collections contain approximately 30 million items and specimens, including the remains of more than 22,000 individuals, the Crimson reports.

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