Harvard faces calls to rename 'Board of Overseers' over slavery ties

  • Harvard University is facing calls to rename its Board of Overseers.
  • Proponents of the name change say the name should be scrapped because "overseers" managed plantations and abused slaves.

The Harvard University Board of Overseers is under pressure to alter its name due to the term having ties to slavery. 

The Coalition for a Diverse Harvard is calling for the board to drop the title “overseer," as the term was also used to refer to individuals who managed plantations. The alumni organization Harvard Forward brought attention to the“Board of Overseers” name in a series of tweets.

"'Overseer' also refers to men hired by plantation owners during that same time period to violently control and abuse enslaved people."   

"Today, on the 237th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts, we join the @harvarddiverse Coalition in calling to #RenameTheOverseers," Harvard Forward tweeted July 8. 

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"'Overseer' also refers to men hired by plantation owners during that same time period to violently control and abuse enslaved people. Plantation overseers were paid to elicit the most work out of enslaved people, and they often resorted to violent disciplinary tactics and brutal torture. Narratives from enslaved people are filled with accounts of mutilations, burnings, & whippings at the hands of overseers," the group stated, claiming that "the term 'overseer' cannot be separated from its historical context and connotations." 

"The continued use of a word characterized by such deep-rooted racism is a testament to Harvard's failure to confront our country's history."

The group began its campaign to change the name of Harvard's “second-highest governing body” in 2017, as the Harvard Crimson reported.

The board itself consists of 30 alumni and has the power to appoint the university president. 

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In June, the University of Louisville scrapped the title “overseer” from its student government bodies, saying the term "hearkens back to American slavery and reminds us of the brutality of the conditions and treatment of black people during this time," University of Louisville President Neeli Bendapudi

Harvard’s Board of Overseers is not the first organization to come under scrutiny at the Ivy League institution. A petition in June to rename the Mather House, named for Increase Mather, a Harvard president and slave owner who attended the university in 1656.  

The university’s board elections began July 1.  The Coalition for a Diverse Harvard has backed five candidates who have endorsed altering the name “overseer” as part of their election platform, the Crimson reported.  One of the candidates, John E. Betty said it was difficult for the noun “overseer” to be “divorced” from connections with slavery, saying “we need to change” and further stated that the Board of Overseers "is a bit of a relic around Harvard history and linguistics." 

The Coalition for a Diverse Harvard did not respond to Campus Reform’s request for comment. 

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @fergusonmjames



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James Ferguson
James Ferguson | Virginia Campus Correspondent

James Ferguson is a Virginia Campus Correspondent with Campus Reform. He is a student at Northern Virginia Community College where he studies Political Science. James was a Senator in the NOVA Loudoun Student Government from 2018-2019, served as Treasurer of the Business Club from 2019-2020 and is a member of the National Society of Collegiate Scholars.

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