Recognizing Slavery at Harvard

I write today about history, about legacies, and about our responsibility to our past and our future. On the morning of April 6, I, joined by Congressman John Lewis, will install a plaque on Wadsworth House in memory of four enslaved persons who lived and worked there during the 18th century in the households of two Harvard presidents. I have also convened a committee of historians from our faculty to advise me about other sites on campus that should be similarly recognized as significant symbols of Harvard’s connections to slavery. Next March, with support from the Office of the President, the Radcliffe Institute will host a major conference on universities and slavery, offering a broader exploration of the complexities of our past.

Although we embrace and regularly celebrate the storied traditions of our nearly 400 year history, slavery is an aspect of Harvard’s past that has rarely been acknowledged or invoked. The importance of slavery in early New England was long ignored even by historians, and the presence and contributions of people of African descent at Harvard have remained a largely untold story. But Harvard was directly complicit in America’s system of racial bondage from the College’s earliest days in the 17th century until slavery in Massachusetts ended in 1783, and Harvard continued to be indirectly involved through extensive financial and other ties to the slave South up to the time of emancipation. This is our history and our legacy, one we must fully acknowledge and understand in order to truly move beyond the painful injustices at its core. As the late John Hope Franklin, distinguished historian and Harvard Ph.D., put it, “Good history is a good foundation for a better present and future.”

We must explore this past first of all to recognize and honor the place and importance of enslaved individuals in our history. The plaque at Wadsworth will record the names of four women and men, Bilhah, Venus, Titus, and Juba, whose work formed a foundational part of what Harvard was in the 18th century and what it has since become. Until now, these laborers and their contributions, as well as the broader participation of people of color in early life at Harvard, have been all but invisible. The plaque is the beginning of an effort to remember them and our shared history.

There is a second essential purpose in confronting the distressing realities of America’s racial past and Harvard’s place within it. We need to understand the attitudes and assumptions that made the oppressions of slavery possible in order to overcome their vestiges in our own time. It should not be because we feel superior to our predecessors that we interrogate and challenge their actions. We should approach the past with humility because we too are humans with capacities for self-delusion, for moral failure and blindness, for inhumanity. If we can better understand how oppression and exploitation could seem commonplace to so many of those who built Harvard, we may better equip ourselves to combat our own shortcomings and to advance justice and equality in our own time. At its heart, this endeavor must be about "Veritas," about developing a clear-sighted view of our past that can enable us to create a better future.

The past never dies or disappears. It continues to shape us in ways we should not try to erase or ignore. In more fully acknowledging our history, Harvard must do its part to undermine the legacies of race and slavery that continue to divide our nation.


Drew G. Faust is the President of Harvard University.

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