What a loss that the current debate about Harvard and slavery has arisen after the death of my old friend and mentor Peter Gomes (1942 - 2011), the Minister in Harvard's Memorial Church who would have added so much to it. A scholar who was one of the keepers of Boston's legacy, widely influential as well throughout American academia, Harvard President Drew Faust did not exaggerate when she called Gomes "one of the great preachers of our generation, and a living symbol of courage and conviction."

Harvard's Plummer Professor of Christian Morals, Gomes was a black scholar who was most at home in the study of the 17th century New England Puritan settlement. About his own background, he was, however, very clear, insisting in "The Good Life," perhaps his best-known book, "I have always considered myself an heir to slavery, for I am only two generations removed from it." (Gomes was raised by his maternal grandmother, who had been brought up by her grandmother.) And about both the African-American legacy Gomes claimed as his own and the white Puritan legacy that was a focus of his studies, he was equally bold in making clear their meaning.

About his African-American legacy he wrote, also in "The Good Life," that

"the great white fear in America has always been the fear of a just revenge and a revolution on the part of black people, the terrible sense of justice waiting to happen ... white America knows how complicit it has been in the destruction of black people [and that a] revolutionary revenge worthy of the French or Russian Revolutions would drench the land in blood."

Pointedly, he added that Southern lynchings of black people were more about fear than hatred.

About the 17th century Puritan legacy he not only studied, but really identified with as a New Englander, he was equally clear, and did not scant Boston's and Harvard's responsibilities, famously pronouncing (according to Robert Boynton's 1996 New Yorker profile of Gomes) at the first meeting of his Divinity School class each year that Harvard

"was founded by Puritans fleeing England to create a new world order. They hoped the world would reform itself in the light of New England: the light of New England was Boston, the heart of Boston was Cambridge, and the center of Cambridge was Harvard ... Therefore Harvard is the light of the world," he told his class, "and you stand in an apostolic succession stretching all the way back to Moses.'' 

To which, because Gomes was as humorous as he was scholarly, he invariably added that Moses "would himself have come to Harvard had he had the chance."

Famously black, gay, Baptist, and Republican (he delivered the invocation at Ronald Reagan's second inaugural), Gomes was a very independent thinker, asserting, for example, a very fair-minded, generous and objective view of the Civil War that astounded Southern author and Harvard alumna Allegra Jordan, who recalled in her response to his 1991 sermon, "The Courage to Remember," that Gomes 

"railed against Harvard's Memorial Hall because it only commemorated Union dead from the Civil War, not the Confederates. ‘Humanity transcends the sides ... there are only those to be commended to God.' He stood in a notoriously secular campus in one of the most insular towns in America." Jordan remembered, "and said we should love people like me; those from the South. This was at a time when the Boston Globe printed cartoons of the first Clinton/Gore campaign for president showing the two posting campaign signs on outhouses."

Jordan could not account for it. But her Boston was not Peter Gomes's Boston. Nor was her Harvard Gomes's Harvard. For the Plummer Professor, whatever else it had become, the City Upon a Hill was still the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, Harvard the moral beacon. 

Another Southerner, also a Harvard alumnus, a century earlier, Basil Ransom, Southern gentleman, Confederate War veteran and Henry James's protagonist in his novel of 1885, The Bostonians, had the experience Jordan had expected to have, encountering in James's novel the university's absolute refusal to allow the Confederate war dead into Memorial Hall, a refusal Gomes in effect both argued against in his 1991 sermon and explained the origins of in his legendary first day lecture to his Divinity students; for the reason the Confederate war dead were deemed unworthy of inclusion on Memorial Hall's tablets was Harvard's near universal moral judgment then that it was the "just cause" of, first, Unionism, and then antislavery that Memorial Hall commemorated. 

Witness this verse from the senior Oliver Wendell Holmes's hymn written for Memorial Hall's dedication in 1874: "TRUTH, Heaven-born TRUTH, their fearless guide, / Thy saints have lived, thy heroes died; / Our love has reared their earthly shrine, / Their glory be forever Thine." Sentiments, furthermore, that were widespread at the time. An especially explicit example is the dedicatory text of the great Sphinx Monument at nearby Mount Auburn Cemetery of 1874: "AMERICAN UNION PRESERVED, AFRICAN SLAVERY DESTROYED, BY THE UPRISING OF A GREAT PEOPLE, BY THE BLOOD OF FALLEN HEROES." There was no place for the unjust cause at Harvard, none at all. 

We have largely forgotten that the Abolitionists were only the extremist spearhead of Boston's mid 19th-century attitude toward slavery. It is true that Charles Sumner famously decried in the U.S. Senate in 1848 the "unhallowed union ... between the cotton planters [of the South] and the Cotton-Spinners and traffickers of New England,—between the lords of the lash and the lords of the loom," but the lords of the loom were a very small group of merchant Brahmins, outnumbered and increasingly looked down upon even by other Brahmins; hence the founding of the Union Club by Somerset Club members. Slavery was made illegal in Massachusetts only three years after John Adams's state constitution was promulgated in 1780, the Supreme Judicial court ruling that the Constitution forbade it.

The climate of opinion on the subject in Boston was known far and wide, moreover, for decades before the Civil War. Recently, in the historical and architectural guide to its campus MIT has commissioned me to write, I have come to a new understanding of how far and wide. The key reason, for example, that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is not the Virginia Institute of Technology, although MIT founder William Barton Rogers was a professor at the University of Virginia, was that he "found the reality and politics of slavery appalling" and made a point of forging a matrimonial and political alliance with a Boston woman, Emma Savage, from "a prosperous family of Boston reformers" that would enable him to relocate to the New England capital, these the words of MIT President Susan Hocksfield in her MIT 150th anniversary address to the Lowell Institute. Indeed, the founding in Boston by William Lloyd Garrison of The Liberator, the famous abolitionist newspaper, is cited by Hockfield as an example of why for Rogers "all roads seemed to lead to Boston."

This is why in my 1999 historical and architectural guide to Harvard, I dedicate page after page to the the great mid-19th-century antislavery 'cathedral' of Memorial Hall, and only one sentence to the fact that 17th century Harvard presidents had slaves—important to notice so as to acknowledge Harvard's connection with the "peculiar institution," but hardly as important as Harvard's Civil War antislavery fervor. Indeed, it seemed to me more important that Harvard's presidential slaves keep company in the ancient burying ground opposite Harvard Yard with two black Minutemen from Concord and Lexington, Neptune Frost and Cato Stedman, who made, surely, a more important contribution historically than any known to have been made by presidential slaves.

It is the presidential slaves who have lately made it into the headlines, for they are central to the thesis of "Harvard and Slavery: Seeking a Forgotten History," a faculty/student research project funded by the Harvard President's Office, issued in 2011, the real significance of which to my mind, however, is the issue it raises with respect to Harvard's complicity as an institution in the ill-gotten gains of those of its donors involved in the slave trade. This is a tricky business, of course: the value of the Pauline epistles is not less—or is it?—because of St. Paul's rather benign view as many now see it of slavery; nor is Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence less important—do I hear otherwise?—because its author, however much opposed in principle to the "peculiar institution," owned slaves. We all have different reasons for turning away from such questions when possible, but none are really good enough, as "Harvard and Slavery" argues very convincingly.

For me, one great event brings this matter into sharp focus: and in the wake of reading the Harvard report it prompted me to write an article published in May of 2012 by the online arts and literary journal, Open Letters Monthly, in an article I pointedly entitled "Pride and Shame on the Via Sacra," this last an allusion to the triumphal parade route through the Roman Forum that Beacon Street in Boston from the State House a half dozen blocks westward may be likened to on May 28, 1863, when the all black Massachusetts 54th was led down that street past the Massachusetts Capital to the harbor to depart for battle in the South by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, a Brahmin-born Harvard man who seemed to Booker T. Washington a Christ-like figure, so sacred would his memory become in the Civil War's aftermath.

There was the pride of Boston's Via Sacra. Shaw's name was given a special place of honor in Memorial Hall. But there was also shame. Before Shaw led his black troops past the State Capital—where today a magnificent bronze relief fixes that moment in 1863 forever in every era—the regiment passed the Boston Athenaeum, where as it happens I, a life member, first read "Harvard and Slavery," in 2012, and where I first realized it was the shame more than the pride that needed to be written about.

Why? Because of Thomas Handasyd Perkins, that's why.

Perkins is, so to speak, the anti-Shaw, and so compelling. A merchant Brahmin who declined his parents offer of a Harvard education, Perkins early took to business and kept at it lifelong with great success, the fruits of same increasingly an ample civic philanthropy. Perkins was involved in the start of the Massachusetts General Hospital and the Perkins School for the Blind (which is named after him) and, finally, a huge donor to the Boston Athenaeum. Sufficient indeed to allow his magisterial portrait by Thomas Sully the place of honor as the culminating glory of the Athenaeum's magnificent ground floor Long Room.

The problem with all this is that Thomas Handasyd Perkins, the grandee thus enthroned in the Athenaeum, was a slave trader. And I do not doubt he contributed to the fund to build Memorial Hall.

Perkins's portrait has not always dominated the Long Room. It used to be in a small cul de sac off to the Long Room's side, and was only moved to the head of the throne room, as it were, in recent years. Which is odd. For rather than waxing his reputation has waned. The authors of his 1971 biography consoled their readers with the assurance that  "slavery, at best, [was] a small part of the Perkins enterprise." Yet by 1997 Boston University historian Hugh Thomas painted a very different picture in "The Slave Trade," a broad general survey of the American scene: "Slave ships left Boston in those days for Africa ... Colonel Thomas Handasyd Perkins of that city had recently established a good business selling slaves."

There is more. After the slave trade was outlawed in Massachusetts, according to James Rawley's classic, "The Transatlantic Slave Trade" (1981), "Boston entrepreneurs found ways to evade the laws of the Commonwealth and of the United States," and cite the Perkins firm as an example, noting that "by working through middlemen and correspondents, [they] managed to keep obscure their extensive participation in the slave trade." Moreover, as Paul Goodman, showed in his "Ethics and Enterprise," Perkins wrote letters to his agents outlining in great detail the sort of black people he sought to buy, touching on gender and musculature, for instance.

Thomas Handasyd Perkins has long since been exposed as a dedicated slave smuggler and it is a disgrace that his portrait should be enthroned at the Athenaeum.

Now for the good news. That is not happening at Harvard. I cannot say what Peter Gomes, who died in 2011, would have thought of all this, except perhaps to say he did not argue with my Athenaeum article. I think, on balance, that Peter would have supported striking the family crest of the slave-trading family that for the last 80 years has adorned the Harvard Law School shield. But in doing so, I can imagine him pointing out the loss of a symbol requiring permanent penance and reflection.

But I can say what I think of this issue, and, unusually, that may not require setting aside the historians role, for the nature of slavery is such that ultimately I observe in all times and places the response to it is very personal. And though my own coping mechanism against all this is less religious than Peter Gomes's might have been, "Emerson's continuous involvement in protest against slavery," in Lawrence Buell's words, is a bracing antidote to the legacy of people like Thomas Handasyd Perkins and his apologists. 

It is Emerson's portrait—the greatest of Boston Brahmins, Boston's iconic thinker and the American Plato—which should dominate the Athenaeum Long Room, not Perkins's. And as for Harvard: although I have long opposed any thought of reparations and such so often bandied about when subjects like this arise, I hope I am not the only Harvard alumnus who would vote that any descendant of any slave owned by any Harvard official should be offered a full and complete scholarship to any school of the university.