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Harvard to honor slaves who worked, lived at Wadsworth House

Harvard president Drew Faust on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Friday, Feb. 12, 2016. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Charles Krupa/Associated Press

Harvard president Drew Faust.

Harvard University was “directly complicit in America’s system of racial bondage” and should do more to acknowledge its ties to slavery, president Drew Faust said Wednesday in a forthright opinion piece in the student newspaper that sparked mixed reactions on campus.

Faust announced that next month, the university will unveil a plaque at Wadsworth House — the former home of Harvard presidents — in memory of four slaves who lived and worked in the building.

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“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,” Faust wrote.

Faust, a historian of the American South and the Civil War, raised the issue as Harvard and other universities grapple with symbols of their history, histories that are often intertwined with slavery.

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Earlier this month, Harvard Law School moved to change its shield, which uses elements of a former slaveholding family’s coat of arms.

Harvard has also dropped the term “house masters” when referring to those who supervise some undergraduate residence buildings and will instead call them “faculty deans.”

In her letter, Faust also announced that in March 2017, the university’s Radcliffe Institute plans to host a major conference on universities and slavery.

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“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,” Faust wrote.

The institution was complicit even after slavery ended in Massachusetts in 1783, she wrote, and “Harvard continued to be indirectly involved through extensive financial and other ties to the slave South up to the time of emancipation.’’

Harvard professors and students praised Faust’s announcement but some said the university should do more to concede its history.

“It’s a shame that it had to take this long,” said William Greenlaw, a junior from Indiana who is black. “That said, I think it’s very good that we’re acknowledging that.”

Senior Sarah Cole said a plaque is an insufficient recognition of slaves’ sacrifices, and that it should not be hung in the place they were enslaved.

“It seems so inadequate to recognize people who were forced to sacrifice their lives” said Cole, a black student from Kansas City.

Cole said a more fitting tribute would be to change the names of buildings that are named for those who owned slaves or participated in the slave industry, though she did not know which buildings. She also suggested starting a fund for descendents of slaves.

Several professors, alumni, and historians applauded Faust’s letter as bold.

Lawrence Bobo, chairman of Harvard’s African and African American Studies Department, praised Faust’s commitment to hold talks about slavery.

“The burdens of a slave past are an inescapable part of the American experience, at Harvard too. Concrete and honest recognition of that past is a necessary ingredient to real healing,” Bobo said in an e-mail.

“It’s a huge tribute to these really dogged efforts by students and faculty on campuses all over to contest the stories that we tell ourselves about who we are,” said Francie Latour, a Harvard graduate and former Globe staff writer and Boston-based writer who has researched slavery in New England.

Linda Heywood, a professor of African history at Boston University, said two slave names mentioned in the op-ed, Bilhah and Juba, are Muslim, a fact she hopes won’t be overlooked.

“There was a long presence of Muslims even in the very center of where America began its independence,” Heywood said. “We don’t have to declare all Muslims to be our enemies. We brought Muslims here as children, as families.”

Similar explorations of college history are unfolding on campuses across the country.

Students at Yale University raised concerns about Calhoun College, one of 12 residential colleges and named for John C. Calhoun, a Yale valedictorian and former vice president from South Carolina who was a prominent slave owner and a white supremacist. The university has not decided whether to change the name.

Amherst College recently dropped its unofficial mascott, Lord Jeff, because historians say his namesake, Lord Jeffery Amherst, a British commander during the French and Indian War, supported giving blankets laced with the smallpox virus to Indians to advance the goal of wiping them out.

Eric Foner, a history professor at Columbia University who studies slavery, said Columbia has undertaken a similar project to investigate the role of slavery in its past. Slavery existed in all the Colonies before the American Revolution and even after its abolition in the North, many northerners profited from dealing in the products of southern slave labor, he said in an e-mail.

“Too often, people in the North think of slavery as a southern institution.” he said in an e-mail.

Craig Steven Wilder, a history professor at MIT, said he hopes Faust’s words will spur even more colleges to explore their pasts.

“We have an obligation to acknowledge these persons and our debts,” Wilder said. “The story of education in New England is a part of the history of slavery.”

Faust’s letter was noticed outside of academia, as well, including by Marita Rivero, executive director of the Museum of African American History in Boston.

“Everyone is enriched when we tell the whole American story,” Rivero said. “We allow people to see themselves and one another in our full dimension.”

Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.
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