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In the early days of Harvard, slaves played a role in the everyday life of the university. They worked in the homes of faculty and alumni, and later, they hid in the Warren House as part of the Underground Railroad.
This history has been relatively unknown, but now a group of undergraduates and extension school students have brought it to light in a newly released booklet.
Yesterday evening at the Graduate School of Design, some of the students, and professors Evelyn Higginbotham and Svern Beckert, talked about their project and its findings before a packed hall.
The booklet, “Harvard and Slavery: Seeking an Unforgotten History”, started as a research project of students in a seminar taught by Beckert.
He explained that he decided to begin this project after reading a report on the history of slavery at Brown University in 2007. The next year, he taught a history research seminar that focused on Harvard’s history with slavery.
“I thought, why not do some meaningful research instead of research that was basically just for the professors to grade and then put aside,” Beckert said.
The group is also launching a website on the subject: harvardandslavery.com.
The night began with general introductions from Beckert and Higginbotham, who is chair of the Department of African American Studies at the college, before the panelists went on to detail their specific findings.
Before the American Revolution, they said, Harvard was funded by participants in the slave trade, such as the Perkins brothers of Boston. Others examined the academic legacy of racial science, including the work of prominent professors such as Louis Aggaziz and Nathaniel Shaler, a proponent of white supremacy and notions of racial hierarchy.
“I think it is a really important question and a lot of universities have been investigating this in the past few years,” audience member Sarah Carter ’02 said in an interview. “I am really pleased that Harvard has taken on the challenge to really think about the role of slavery in its history.”
Afterward, Beckert said he was more than satisfied with the turnout and the audience’s response. “It’s great, people seem to be really excited. A very large amount of people are interested in their research and that doesn’t happen that often,” he said.
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