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    Harvard confronts its history of slavery

    In this April 6, 2016 file photo, a plaque that honors four slaves that were owned by, and worked for Harvard’s past presidents.
    Steven Senne/Associated Press/File
    In this April 6, 2016 file photo, a plaque that honors four slaves that were owned by, and worked for Harvard’s past presidents.

    CAMBRIDGE — At a conference attended by hundreds Friday and viewed by 1,000 more online, Harvard University laid bare the school’s historical connections to slavery and examined how other universities are confronting their painful histories with the practice of racial bondage.

    “Some of our most esteemed educational institutions are also the product of some of the most horrific violence that has ever descended upon any group of people,” said Harvard history professor Sven Beckert during a panel about the Cambridge school and slavery.

    The conference, entitled “Universities and Slavery: Bound by History,” exposes how higher education in the United States and beyond was partly built “upon the violence of the slave trader, the Middle Passage, the auction block, and the whip,” he said.

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    Harvard president Drew Faust, a historian of the American South and the Civil War, announced the conference last March in an opinion piece in the student newspaper that declared the university was complicit in slavery and should do more to acknowledge that history.

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    The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study hosted the gathering and billed an onstage conversation between Faust and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates as its keynote event.

    Harvard’s inquiry into its ties to slavery started humbly in 2007, said Beckert, who organized an undergraduate research seminar about the topic after reading about efforts at Brown University to document its slave past. Four students enrolled and their research was turned into a book published in 2011, he said.

    At the onset of their research, Beckert said, histories about Harvard were mostly silent on slavery.

    “When the students began to uncover a different history, they and others who listened to them were surprised,” he said. “Yet in retrospect, it seems that the only thing that should surprise us was our surprise and that it took so long for us to allow ourselves to be surprised by that history.”

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    Last year, Faust convened a faculty committee to address Harvard’s legacy with slavery and unveiled a plaque outside Wadsworth House to honor four slaves who worked there in the 1700s. The building is the second oldest at Harvard and housed university presidents during the Colonial era.

    Also in 2016, Harvard Law School retired its shield, which was based on the coat of arms for Isaac Royall Jr., who used slave labor on his sugar plantation in Antigua.

    Royall’s fortune helped to establish Harvard’s first law professorship in 1788, said Daniel R. Coquillette, who teaches at the school.

    Antiguans teach schoolchildren about Royall and his ties to Harvard, said Coquillette, who recounted how he apologized to the director of the country’s national museum for the law school’s painful legacy on the island.

    “She said, ‘You know, don’t be sorry. . . . We are proud to have had some role in the founding of an institution that would graduate Barack Obama,’ ” Coquillette said. “That is generousness.”

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    Another presenter was Beckert’s former student Alexandra Rahman, who told the audience how Harvard established a botanical research outpost in 1899 at a sugar plantation in Cuba owned by Edwin Atkins. She described him as a businessman, Harvard donor, and slave owner in the West Indies.

    Between 1899 and 1925, Atkins made significant donations to Harvard, including one that amounted to a little more than $500,000 in today’s dollars, to support researchers looking for better ways to cultivate tropical plants like sugar cane, Rahman said.

    Though Cuba freed its slaves in 1886, Rahman said Atkins’s fortune was built on the West Indian slave economy and Harvard benefited from those riches.

    “I think these findings demonstrate the importance of investigating connections between Harvard and slavery,” she said. “I hope that this research will allow us to better understand and recognize how the history of slavery has contributed to the development of our school’s vast educational resources which we still enjoy today.”

    Beckert said Harvard hopes to draw inspiration from the conference to find new ways to address the school’s past with slavery.

    “I think the worst thing we could do is kind of to cleanse our institutions from this history and say, ‘We took care of that and now we don’t have to worry about it anymore,’ ” he said. “No, I think we need to continue to engage on this.”

    Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi.