Two years ago, Carissa Chen, then a Harvard undergraduate, was researching the lives of those enslaved by university affiliates. The project ended up connecting her with 50 living descendants. Jordan Lloyd is one of those descendants.

Lloyd joined host Arun Rath on GBH’s All Things Considered to discuss finding empowerment in her family’s history and the legacy of slavery at Harvard. What follows is a lightly edited transcript.

Arun Rath: So just take us through this kind of amazing story. A student at Harvard reached out to you in an email letting you know that you could be a descendant of slaves owned by a Harvard University founding member. Tell us about how that popped up in your inbox, and what that was like.

Jordan Lloyd: Well, it was the June of the lockdown, and I had previously been working in tourism, so I had ample free time. And I woke up probably around 6:30 on the morning of June 1st, and checked my email first thing. I was very surprised to see this email — and it was pretty short. From Carissa, it said, “I have reason to believe that you're a descendant of Tony and Cuba Vassall, who were enslaved by the Vassall family.”

And it was startling, in that — who gets that email? That’s so specific. And I mean, was it a scam? Like, how did this woman know about me? But it included a link, and I opened up the link and Carissa had provided this wonderfully researched document about my family, dating all the way back to before the Revolutionary War. And it was incredible.

I scrolled down to the bottom to like verify — like, maybe she got a different Jordan Lloyd? I mean, I don't know, a little bit of disbelief. But, you know, as I scrolled through and I saw the names of the various ancestors of mine through the generations — and then finally I started seeing names that I recognized, and I was like, “Oh, my gosh.” And then it it ended with my grandmother's obituary — and my father and my mother and my sister's names. And I was like, “Okay, well, this definitely checks out.”

Finally, Carissa, my father and I, we got to do a series of Zoom calls where we talked about her findings. And in a summer that was really very heavy —

Rath: This is summer of 2020 we’re talking about, right? So after George Floyd and social justice protests...

Lloyd: Exactly. And, you know, the reinvigoration of the Black Lives Matter movement. It was really — it was a welcome respite to know that Black people had been in this country since before its founding, and yet we've persisted through all manner of oppression.

And it put a human face on it, because I feel like when we talk about “the enslaved,” there are these huge swaths of injustice and how do we possibly rectify what happened? But when I had this list of names and these stories and where they lived and what they did, their professions, it was very grounding. It was very grounding.

Rath: And it's wonderful that it was powerful in that way, and it sounds almost empowering, would you say? It sounds like you really felt some pride in these ancestors.

Lloyd: Oh, incredibly empowering, definitely, and a lot of pride. To start, Tony and Cuba, their enslavers left them, essentially, at the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. So they were in this house, their enslavers gone and the idea of just being free, you know — and, like, not necessarily emancipated in a formal way. But the people that owned them weren't there.

And it just opened this door in my imagination of like, “Wow, what would that be like? To just be free and to just move and kind of go about your life, and what that meant for them?” And their son Darby had been sent off to another relative in the Royall [family]-Vassall connection — the white Royalls and Vassalls. And he was brought to the Battle of Bunker Hill with the men who had enslaved him, and he made his way back to Cambridge.

"There are these huge swaths of injustice and how do we possibly rectify what happened? But when I had this list of names and these stories and where they lived and what they did, their professions, it was very grounding."

George Washington came to the house and asked Darby to hitch up a horse. And Darby said, “That’s fine, but you'll have to pay me.” And George Washington didn’t pay him, so he didn’t hitch up the horse.

It’s such a simple, beautiful story of like, “This is my worth. This is my value.”

Rath: Yeah. And I mean, the way you’re describing, I can really hear how both the names and their stories are — wow, what a powerful gift.

Now, I want to talk to you, though, as well about how the university is dealing with this history. This is also in the context of the social justice movement we talked about, the reinvigoration of the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020. And one of the things that came out of that was Harvard saying that they were going to reckon with the legacy of slavery. We have this Legacy of Slavery initiative that they’re dedicating $100 million toward, I guess, doing what they can to to make things right. What's your sense of that right now? And what would you like to see from from that initiative.

Lloyd: The impact of slavery — right? — tremendous. You had the actual enslavement, you had the emancipation and then you had basically state-sponsored terrorism toward the enslaved descendants for a hundred years afterwards. So the idea that Harvard's going to just break off $100 million over an unspecified amount of time and —

I mean, they made suggestions, it's a valiant effort. I find it a bit performative, if I'm going to be perfectly honest. Obviously, there were seven suggestions that they made in their report. All wonderful suggestions. And I understand, there's a part of me that wants to give this institution a lot of grace because it is an extensive list of wrongs that have happened throughout their history. And a lot of triumphs! I don't want to be shortsighted and myopic in saying like, “Oh, okay, well, you know, they didn't do anything.” Because they did! And they’re doing their best, and it’s a big institution.

But the course that Carissa took began, I believe, in 2007. I was a senior in high school that year. I subsequently worked, through a Harvard affiliate, at the American Repertory Theater — their second stage, which is now closed. And I had racial incidents that I reported to H.R. And so I didn't really — wasn't thrilled to hear what Harvard had to say about it in an institution that, you know, I mean, I don't go there. I've never attended, but I've certainly read about their problems with white supremacy and issues around race on their campus.

And I understand that, you know, a first step — it's an important first step. When I read the report, the part that spoke directly to descendants. How it was worded, to me, felt like they were still looking for us, which almost like negated what Carissa found, in my opinion. But I don't know.

There's a part of me that needs to separate my own personal experience with the institution and like, be gracious that, “Okay, that's wonderful that they're coming to terms with this huge financial institution that they perpetuated and the oppression that came from it.” But also it's a little bit of a drop in the bucket.

Rath: Before we let you go — I don't a pile on Harvard, but it's kind of what we have. I'm wondering, you probably heard about the story that came out last week in the Harvard Crimson about the Peabody collection with Harvard. Holding onto the remains of some thousands of Native Americans and, apparently, as many as 19 formerly enslaved people. I'm just curious, you know — in the context of all this, your take on that?

Lloyd: Wow. I want to be as diplomatic as possible, but it's a reprehensible situation. Like, why? Who's benefiting from having these bodies in their collection? You know what I'm saying? It's the way that people of color in this country have been treated.

The fact of the matter is, like, this country was founded on 20 twin domicides. It's genocide and enslavement — like, two atrocities that this country was founded on. And the lack of respect towards Indigenous communities, towards Black communities in this country. I mean, this exemplifies it.

Rath: It's been really good speaking with you. Thank you for sharing this with us.

Lloyd: Oh, it's been my pleasure.

Rath: That's Jordan Lloyd. She is a descendant of people who were enslaved by affiliates of Harvard University. This is All Things Considered.