When J. Max Bond Jr. ’55 entered Harvard at the age of 16, he was among 15 Black students in his class, most of whom lived in the north corner of Harvard Yard.
As his freshman spring semester began, two other Harvard freshmen erected a wooden cross facing that corner of the Yard, formed by Stoughton and Holworthy Halls.
And around midnight on Feb. 5, 1952, the students lit the cross on fire.
“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.
The pair, hailed as pranksters by administrators and students alike, made a half-hearted apology, saying it was a practical joke. Freshman Union Committee secretary Geoffrey H. “Geoff” Ball ’55 told The Crimson at the time the Union would have taken action if there was “any maliciousness” uncovered. Ball did not respond to a request for comment.
“We do not feel that this demonstration can be dismissed as a prank,” Bond wrote to The Crimson two days after Ball’s comments. “A burning cross carries with it so many unpleasant associations that it cannot be simply laughed off.”