Harvard has installed a plaque honoring four slaves who worked in the households of two university presidents in the 1700s and, more broadly, recognizing the school’s history with slavery.
The Boston Globe reports that current president Drew Faust was joined by US Representative John Lewis for the unveiling at Wadsworth House, which is the second oldest building on campus and originally served as the president’s residence. The plaque recognizes Titus, Venus, Juba, and Bilhah, who lived and worked in the house. “We name the names to remember these stolen lives,” explained Faust.
This comes on the heels of Harvard Law School’s decision to redesign its shield so it’s no longer based on a Caribbean slaveholder’s family crest. In February, the university (my alma mater, full disclosure) also decided to stop calling the people who run various undergrad residential outfits for sophomores, juniors and seniors “house masters,” going with “faculty dean,” instead.
In a piece written for the Harvard Crimson, Faust—a scholar of the American Civil War—was very explicit about the purpose of the plaque. Harvard has not done enough to acknowledge the slavery in its own history, despite the fact the university “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,” Faust explained.
As well, “the presence and contributions of people of African descent at Harvard have remained a largely untold story,” she said.
In addition to the plaque, Faust has assembled a team of historians to suggest other sites on campus to recognize, and next year the affiliated Radcliffe Institute will host a conference on universities and slavery. “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,” Faust added.
Harvard, which is very old and very rich and therefore hip-deep in some of America’s worst moments, isn’t the only university facing these sorts of questions. At Yale, there have been calls to rename Calhoun College, so they’re no longer honoring white supremacist John C. Calhoun; Princeton has faced criticism over the fact that Woodrow Wilson’s name is plastered everywhere, with insufficient recognition of that he presided over an appallingly segregationist administration.
America’s most prestigious institutions of higher learning are and have always been closely tied to money and power, and their campuses are scattered with the names of individuals whose politics and beliefs are now commonly held to be absolutely appalling. The challenge for all these schools is how to face that legacy—neither minimizing the ugliness nor burying it.