Harvard President Drew Faust says the university is documenting its ties to slavery

Historians in the News
tags: slavery, Harvard, Drew Gilpin Faust

Last spring, Harvard President Drew Faust joined with Civil Rights icon and U.S. Rep. John Lewis to affix a plaque on Harvard’s Wadsworth House in honor of Titus, Venus, Bilhah, and Juba, who lived and worked there as enslaved persons during the presidencies of Benjamin Wadsworth and Edward Holyoke in the 1700s. “Today we take an important step in the effort to explore the complexities of our past and to restore this painful dimension of Harvard’s history to the understanding of our heritage,” said Faust during the unveiling. “The past never dies or disappears. It continues to shape us in ways we should not try to erase or ignore.”

This Friday, the University will take another step in exploring its long-ago ties to slavery with a major daylong symposium at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study that will examine the relationship between slavery and universities.

Leading into the conference, the Gazette spoke with Faust about Harvard’s ongoing commitment to acknowledging and understanding the grimmer aspects of its past.

GAZETTE: Last year you, along with Congressman John Lewis, unveiled a plaque on Wadsworth House in honor of four enslaved persons who worked and lived there during the 18th century, and you urged in a Crimson editorial that the University more fully acknowledge and understand its links to slavery. Is the upcoming conference at Radcliffe a next step in that commitment?

FAUST: We started planning the conference at the same time we were talking about and planning for the plaque, recognizing that we knew something about the history of slavery at Harvard — the four individuals honored on the plaque are a bit of our knowledge — but we knew there was much more. And we also knew that it would be beneficial to have a way of understanding what our peer institutions have learned about slavery on their campuses and how they’ve responded to it. And so 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. So it’s as much an effort to raise awareness as it is an effort to learn more.

GAZETTE: How does Harvard come to grips with its early involvement in slavery when it, as with other early American colleges, has so few records on those who were considered property and often not even noticed historically? How do we properly honor what we barely can document now?

FAUST: This is so much the essence of expanding understanding of the history of slavery, which coincides with my time as a historian. When I got my Ph.D. in 1975, we were in the midst of an explosion of inquiries into the history of slavery. And for many generations people said, “Oh, we can’t know anything about it.” Then historians just got much more imaginative about the kinds of sources they used and the ways they looked for the past. And it affected what we knew about enslaved people and the system of slavery, but also more generally. It was called at the time “the history of the inarticulate,” meaning we can’t just settle for the history of statesmen and generals and people who kept extensive records.

If we want to understand the past in its full form, we have to be more ingenious in order to be able to trace the lives of women, of workers, of people who were not literate — and of people who were forbidden literacy, Americans who were enslaved. And so this whole explosion of historical resources came out of that commitment to expand the compass of who was included in our history.

One of the things happening now is that archivists, who have never looked for these things, are finding them in odd places. Titus, one of the enslaved persons from Wadsworth House, didn’t leave extensive personal papers the way Charles William Eliot did, but if you dig around you can find property records, you can find baptismal records. For instance, we have found a lot about Native American history through archaeology here on campus, and similar kinds of archeological research have yielded a great deal of information about slave plantations in the South. So what are the means that we could employ to really look more assiduously for a record that is there? I know it will be there. It may not be as full as the written records of the presidents of Harvard, but we are going to find a lot and already have found a lot.

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