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Harvard Remembers Slaves Who Lived On Campus02:02
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A passerby walks near a newly unveiled plaque attached to Harvard University's Wadsworth House, Wednesday, April 6, 2016, that honors four slaves owned by Harvard presidents. (Steven Senne/AP)
A passerby walks near a newly unveiled plaque attached to Harvard University's Wadsworth House, Wednesday, April 6, 2016, that honors four slaves owned by Harvard presidents. (Steven Senne/AP)
This article is more than 3 years old.

Names like Wadsworth and Holyoke are familiar parts of Harvard University's history.

The university paid homage Wednesday to some less familiar ones: Titus, Venus, Bilhah and Juba — four slaves who once lived and worked on campus.

Their names now appear on a plaque at Wadsworth House, where they lived with the Harvard presidents who enslaved them.

"Their work and that of many other people of color played a significant role in building Harvard, " said Drew Faust, Harvard's current president, at a dedication ceremony. "The plaque is intended to remember them and honor them, and to remind us that slavery was not an abstraction but a cruelty inflicted on particular humans. We name the names to remember these stolen lives."

Harvard history professor Sven Beckert started researching the university's ties to slavery in 2007. He said the plaque marked a milestone in Harvard's handling of this painful part of its past.

"I think it's a very important first step to acknowledge this history," Beckert said, "to not hide it but to confront it and actually make it public that we know this history."

U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, a civil rights leader who marched with Martin Luther King Jr., told the crowd of about 150 he could relate to the research that Beckert and his students did, because he did something similar at the U.S. Capitol.

"When I first got to Congress in 1987, ... I noticed there was a strange absence of the contributions that slaves had made to the construction of federal buildings," Lewis said. "Slaves helped build the White House, the U.S. Capitol and other monuments of power in Washington. But not one word was ever mentioned about their action and their sacrifice."

Lewis said he began a quest to have those slaves remembered. Today, visitors to the Capitol enter through Emancipation Hall, and brochures and tour guides mention the slaves who contributed to the Capitol.

"That is why it is so fitting and most appropriate that Harvard University, the first college in the nation, should pause and pay tribute to the lives of these slaves who served the university and its first president with great distinction," Lewis said.

The plaque provides just a few simple details: "Titus & Venus: Lived and worked here as enslaved persons in the household of President Benjamin Wadsworth (1725-1737); Juba & Bilhah: Lived and worked here as enslaved persons in the household of President Edward Holyoke (1737-1769)."

Harvard has taken other steps toward confronting its ties to slavery in recent weeks. After protests, Harvard Law School announced last month that it will change its crest to remove links to the Royall family, which founded the law school and owned slaves.

"This particular plaque and this effort has been something that I've been thinking about for quite a long time," Faust said Wednesday. She used the university's presidential funds to help publish the students' research in a booklet that was handed out at the dedication.

"I think part of what has motivated me now is just a renewed sense of urgency, as this matter has become so much a matter of national discussion," Faust said.

The university plans to hold a conference next spring on universities and slavery at its Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

"The time is always right to do right," Lewis said. "And this is the right thing to do."

Watch the university's ceremony below: 

This segment aired on April 6, 2016.

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Erica Morrison Twitter Associate Producer, Here & Now
Erica Morrison was formerly a producer for Here & Now. Before that, she worked at NPR on a variety of shows, including Weekend All Things Considered, Tell Me More, Talk of the Nation and Morning Edition.

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