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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained
Since University President Drew G. Faust appointed a committee last spring to research Harvard’s ties to slavery, some of the professors on the committee have helped to organize a conference about the relationship between slavery and American universities that will take place this weekend.
The committee has also been in conversation with Faust and formed a list of recommendations, according to History professor Sven Beckert, who leads the committee with fellow History professor Evelyn B. Higginbotham. Pusey Library will also host an exhibit about Harvard’s relationship with slavery.
“We don’t see the conference as the end but as the beginning of what would be a broader conversation,” Beckert, who is one of the conference’s chief organizers, said.
Harvard’s historical relationship to slavery came to the fore last year when Law School students demanded that the school change its seal, which bore the crest of a former slave-owning family. The Corporation, the University’s highest governing body, eventually decided to retire the crest.
But Beckert’s interest in ties between slavery and Harvard extends back a decade, when he began teaching a seminar on Harvard and slavery.
“At this point we knew almost nothing,” he said. “I wasn’t sure what was going to come out of it.”
What resulted was a book of research by undergraduates, published in 2011. Beckert and his students unearthed the names of four slaves who worked on Harvard’s campus in the 18th century, and last April Faust dedicated a plaque to them. Faust said in an interview with the Harvard Gazette that she has provided funds for a researcher to continue some of the work Beckert and his students started.
According to Beckert, Faust decided to convene the committee and plan a conference around the same time. While several members of the committee have helped plan the conference, the committee’s work extends beyond the two-day long event.
On Thursday, representatives from universities around the United States who have also done research about their institutions’ ties to slavery will gather at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Representatives from Brown and Georgetown, which recently made the decision to give preferential admissions status to the descendants of slaves the university sold in 1838, will attend the conference, according to Beckert.
Friday’s event is public, entirely sold out, and will feature a keynote speech by journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates.
“The whole genesis of the conference was to bring the attention of the community here at Harvard to this part of Harvard’s past, to explore it more fully, and to understand the ways other institutions have responded to the history of slavery in their environments,” Faust said in the Gazette interview.
Beckert said he hopes attendees leave the conference with a better understanding of how slavery shaped Harvard’s history, and the history of a nation as a whole.
“We need to engage this, not just to be better historians,” he said. “We need to acknowledge this history as a way to be able to move forward.”
—Staff writer Mia C. Karr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @miackarr.
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