Anytime someone tells you that the East Coast has been a liberal bastion of racial progress they should be reminded that a) that simply isn’t true, and b) there are plenty of examples to prove that such thinking is demonstratively false.
Enter an enterprising reporter at Harvard University’s student newspaper The Harvard Crimson, who found a 1924 photo of Klansmen casually chillin’ around and on the John Harvard statue on the school’s campus.
Simon J. Levien found the photo last spring, setting off a year of research that produced a 4,500-word feature that was published last week. The photo, labeled: “Harvard Klass Kow & Klans — students having fun.” was just the beginning of his research into Harvard’s attempts at reconciling its racist past.
Levien spent hours in Harvard’s archives and the student newspaper and spoke with professors, administrators and alumni who attended Harvard 65 years ago, according to an interview he did with The Washington Post.
The most detailed account of the racist climate on campus comes from a Black student named J. Max Bond Jr., who arrived at Harvard as a 16-year-old freshman and graduated in 1955. He was one of the few Black students at the time.
His freshman year, in the spring semester, two other freshman students lit a wooden cross aflame facing the corner where Black students were living.
Here is Bond’s account of the cross burning and his time at Harvard, per Levien’s reporting:
“Some of the onlookers cheered when, after ten minutes, the cross was knocked down,” Bond and his Black classmate wrote in a letter to The Crimson at the time. “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.”
Save a few miscellaneous Crimson articles, Bond’s memory of the incident is the strongest account of the Harvard Yard cross burning, which nearly every biography of Bond’s — he became a well-known architect — invariably notes as formative in his college years.
“I saw the flames,” Bond told The Crimson a few weeks after the incident. “I didn’t think of the Klan right off the bat. When I did realize what it was, I was shocked and I didn’t know what to do.”
Several Harvard deans publicly condemned the cross burning. Three progressive student organizations circulated a petition, garnering several hundred signatures, to have the perpetrators punished.
Post-Harvard, Bond became one of a few prominent Black architects in the 20th century. After his death in 2009, his widow, Jean Carey Bond, released an 11-page retelling of his life.
In it, Jean reveals that the University threatened Bond or any Black student with suspension should they go to the media with the cross burning. Bond, who graduated Phi Beta Kappa and finished undergrad in three years, was never suspended.
Meanwhile, the two freshman perpetrators were handed temporary probation by the Administrative Board.
With the exception of a few administrators and faculty, the racist students were considered “pranksters.”
Imagine experiencing this as a 16-year-old kid.
The KKK was fairly active, though its members were not public with their associations with the hate group, according to Levien’s piece. Their activities were so well-known that the NAACP pushed the university to condemn the group’s activities but got no response. W.E.B. Du Bois, the first Black person to earn a Harvard doctorate condemned then-Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell for doing nothing to stop the KKK’s activities on campus. When Lowell attempted to expel Black students from Harvard dorms, Du Bois wrote in Crisis Magazine that Lowell was “an ally to violent Southern vigilantes.”
The NAACP agreed, putting out an official statement that Lowell was “putting into effect the program proclaimed by the infamous Ku Klux Klan,” per Levien’s reporting.
This isn’t the first time someone wrote about the KKK’s presence at Harvard. Lauren E. Baer wrote a piece in the Crimson Magazine in 2002, that dove into its presence. Her piece did not generate much traction, according to Levien’s feature.
Levien said he and the professors who helped him research the feature were disappointed that the university has not truly reckoned with its racist legacy. Moreover, finding the evidence wasn’t difficult.
“If you type ‘Harvard’ and ‘The KKK’ in our library database, a lot will come up; it’s surprisingly not that buried,” Levien told the Post.