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Harvard Puts Its Ties To Slavery On Display06:12Download

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As American universities grapple with their connections to slavery, Harvard University is putting its ties on display. Last year, a plaque commemorating four enslaved people who lived and worked at the school's Wadsworth House was hung outside. And an exhibit on display now features some of the few documents discovered so far that offer records of the enslaved people who lived and worked at the school. (Steven Senne/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
As American universities grapple with their connections to slavery, Harvard University is putting its ties on display. Last year, a plaque commemorating four enslaved people who lived and worked at the school's Wadsworth House was hung outside. And an exhibit on display now features some of the few documents discovered so far that offer records of the enslaved people who lived and worked at the school. (Steven Senne/AP)

As American universities grapple with their connections to slavery, Harvard University is putting its ties on display in an exhibit featuring some of the few documents discovered so far that offer records of the enslaved people who lived and worked at the school.

Research by Harvard students indicates that at least three Harvard presidents owned enslaved people. One was Benjamin Wadsworth, who was president from 1725 to 1737. He lived in what is now known as Wadsworth House, a yellow house on Massachusetts Avenue that is the second-oldest building at Harvard. It was built in 1726.

Archivist Juliana Kuipers explains that Wadsworth's diary lists the purchase of a "Negro girl."

"Her name is not given in this record," Kuipers says. "She is only referred to as a girl thought to be about 20 years old, but we have found through the church records, which are also available and digitized, that her name is likely Venus."

Three other enslaved people are known to have lived and worked at Wadsworth House. Two were owned by the next president of Harvard, Edward Holyoke. But there may be more.

On display is also a diary from one of Holyoke's daughters, which include several references to a woman named Faro.

"Again, we don't know for sure, but it's possible that she was also enslaved," Kuipers says. "So again this is another nugget for people to follow up on and see if they have more conclusive evidence."

The exhibit was the idea of Harvard President Drew Faust. She says the university's connections to slavery came to her attention in part because of student research in a seminar on Harvard and slavery.

"This resonated very much with me because of my own scholarly interests, which are in the history of the American South and the Civil War, and a direction in that scholarship in recent years, the scholarship of slavery in the United States, has been to look at New England and to discover that New England was much more involved in slavery than had been previously understood and researched," Faust says in an interview in her office in Massachusetts Hall.

One of the students who conducted the original research, Avery Williamson, lives and works in Philadelphia now. She was able to identify one enslaved person who lived and worked at Wadsworth House.

"I didn't really think at the time that much would be made of it, but I think for it to be seen at this level and to be considered as a really integral part of Harvard's history, it feels like really good work to have done as an undergraduate, meaningful," Williamson said.

The person Williamson identified was named Titus. Faculty minutes from March 21, 1740 note a decision to forbid students from associating with Titus, a "Molattoe slave of the late Reverend President Wadsworth." Titus was prohibited from entering the campus, and the university steward was prohibited from sending him on errands or as a messenger.

A plaque commemorating four enslaved people who lived and worked at Wadsworth House now hangs on the house. A committee of historians is advising President Faust on the next places on campus that should be noted.

One place of note is Beck-Warren House. It's possible that it was a stop on the Underground Railroad.

History professor Robin Bernstein brings students from her "Childhood in African America" course here. In 1833, the house was built for Latin professor Charles Beck, who was an abolitionist. It contains a secret trap door that opens onto a secret room.

Harvard history professor Robin Bernstein points to the location of a secret door that leads to a room hidden below the floor in the Beck-Warren house on Harvard's Cambridge campus. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Harvard history professor Robin Bernstein points to the location of a secret door that leads to a room hidden below the floor in the Beck-Warren house on Harvard's Cambridge campus. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

"This was not any kind of an afterthought," Bernstein says as she opens the squeaky trap door. "This was not added decades later."

The trap door reveals a small space not high enough to stand in. In the 1940s, when workers discovered the room, they also discovered an enclosed shaft fitted with a metal spike ladder that led to the basement. But Bernstein doubts that the room was used in the Underground Railroad.

"There's actually very little evidence of white people ever altering their homes to create secret spaces to hide fugitives from slavery," Bernstein says. "So if this is in fact a secret space that was created in order to hide fugitives, it would be truly unique. So that doesn't mean that it couldn't be created for that purpose, but it would be beyond unusual."

(Jesse Costa/WBUR)
(Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Harvard is considering an app that would offer self-guided tours of the university's connections to slavery.

Faust says because she is a historian of slavery, she is not surprised by the discoveries.

"But detailing them brings a past to life in a way that is so important, and I think you can see that in putting the names on Wadsworth House," Faust says. "It says, these are real human beings whose lives were stolen by slavery."

One of the original student researchers, Justin Harbour, now a high school history teacher in Pennsylvania, commends Harvard for encouraging research into its connections with slavery.

"They're trying to leverage their authority and their stance in higher education to bring attention to this problem, and I think that that's wonderful and absolutely a step towards some form of justice with respect to this institution," Harbour says.

But Harbour would also like to see Harvard consider some sort of reparations.

"I think we have to understand what the dimensions of our engagement have been more fully and how we repair that as a university, as a society," Faust says when asked if reparations are possible. "One of the aspects of these investigations of slavery on university campuses that I think is important to remember is that this was happening on our campuses because it was so much part of our society."

The Harvard historians advising Faust emphasized that it's important to continue to investigate the university's connections to slavery, and so she has authorized the hiring of a researcher to study the archives.

The exhibit is on view at the Pusey Library until Friday.

This segment aired on April 24, 2017.

Fred Thys Twitter Reporter
Fred Thys reports on politics and higher education for WBUR.

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