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Harvard Law unveils plaque to acknowledge slave labor

The plaque Harvard Law School unveiled this week in recognition of slaves who contributed to the institution’s founding.
Jon Chase
The plaque Harvard Law School unveiled this week in recognition of slaves who contributed to the institution’s founding.

Harvard Law School unveiled a plaque during a ceremony this week to acknowledge the work of unnamed slaves whose labor made the law school’s founding possible, the university said in a statement.

The plaque, located on a rock in the center of Harvard Law School’s plaza, is the latest in a series of steps by Harvard University and Harvard Law School to acknowledge the role of slavery in the school’s history.

Harvard president Drew Faust said the university was “directly complicit in America’s system of racial bondage” in an opinion piece published by the Harvard Crimson on March 30, 2016.

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Harvard Law School announced March 14, 2016, that it would retire its shield because it included elements from the coat of arms of a family that owned slaves.

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On April 6, 2016, the university unveiled a plaque at Wadsworth House, a building where Colonial-era university presidents lived, to honor four slaves who worked in the house, the Globe reported.

The university also held a conference in March to examine its connection to slavery and discuss the ways in which other universities are confronting similar histories, the Globe reported March 4.

Harvard Law professor Charles Fried said the plaque, which was unveiled Tuesday, is an appropriate way for the school to recognize the negative parts of its history while also maintaining pride in its accomplishments.

“You have to acknowledge the wrongs and the evils which are hundreds of years old and not ignore them, but on the other hand, not act as if they have taken place last week or even 20 years ago,” he told the Globe in a phone interview Friday morning.

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The memorial at the law school does not name the specific slaves who contributed to the founding of the school, the university said, because many of the names recorded did not include last names and were likely not the names these individuals were born with.

However, Harvard Law professor Janet Halley read aloud at the ceremony the recorded names of the slaves who belonged to Isaac Royall Jr., the son of a slave owner whose fortune helped establish Harvard Law School.

“These names then are the tattered ruined remains, the accidents of recording, and the encrustation of a system that sought to convert human beings into property,” Halley said at the ceremony. “But they’re our tattered ruined remains.”

Alyssa Meyers can be reached at alyssa.meyers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ameyers_.