Harvard’s Slave Connections

A plaque begins an official acknowledgment of the University’s past.

In the eighteenth century, Harvard presidents Edward Holyoke (left) and Benjamin Wadsworth both owned slaves.
Eighteenth-century Harvard presidents—and slaveowners—Edward Holyoke (left) and Benjamin Wadsworth
Painting of Edward Holyoke by John Singleton Copley/Harvard Art Museums; painting of Benjamin Wadsworth in the public domain

Although it has not been a secret, Harvard’s past connections to slavery are hardly well known. The student-inspired Harvard and Slavery Project, dating to 2007, sought to examine those connections. During four semesters of inquiry, according to Bell professor of history Sven Beckert (who worked closely with graduate student Katherine Stevens), the students found much that was “surprising”:

Harvard presidents who brought slaves to live with them on campus, significant endowments drawn from the exploitation of slave labor, Harvard’s administration and most of its faculty favoring the suppression of public debates on slavery. A quest that began with fears of finding nothing ended with a new question—how was it that the university had failed for so long to engage with this elephantine aspect of its history?

… But perhaps the most important lesson we learned in the seminars was that there is yet so much more to find out. We only understand some small parts of the story, and it will be [up] to future generations of student researchers and others to explore this history.

Still, now is the moment to share some of our findings with the larger community. We want to inspire others to dig deeper into this history, but even more so we want to encourage a broader debate on what this history means for us today. While the students could not agree on what acts of memorialization, remembrance, or restitution would be appropriate responses for Harvard, they all agreed that a broader community needs to be drawn into this discussion. It is the community as a whole that needs to decide what needs to be done.

Some of the things done were personal and temporary gestures, like the paper sign posted outside Wadsworth House last year, noting that it was not only a home to Harvard presidents, but to their slaves.

As of April 6—with the unveiling of a permanent plaque on Wadsworth House that recalls Titus, Venus, Juba, and Bilhah—these enslaved people who lived and worked there will begin to be remembered as members of the households of presidents Benjamin Wadsworth (1725-1737, for whom the house was custom-built as a residence) and Edward Holyoke (1737-1769). “Not one of the slaves,” the Harvard and History project reported, “had a recorded surname.” The presidents’ names, of course, are already memorialized in the house itself, and the towering University office building across the street, now being renovated as Smith Campus Center. (The Harvard and Slavery Project’s 2011 book provides much more detail about this “forgotten history”—for example, Juba’s 1747 marriage to Ciceely, a slave owned by professor of Hebrew Judah Monis; copies of the book, reprinted, were distributed to participants at the unveiling ceremony.)

The plaque adds to those building names this information:

Wadsworth House
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)

A simple message, but an amplification of the history to be found in such standard works as Samuel Eliot Morison’s Three Centuries of Harvard, which covers the house and the presidencies, but does not mention these residents.

President Drew Faust (whom Beckert, author of the Bancroft Prize-winning Empire of Cotton: A Global History, cites for sponsoring the publication of and “encouraging yet deeper consideration of the implications of our students’ research”) has signaled her deep interest in examining this history thoroughly. In an op-ed published in The Harvard Crimson, she said, “I write today about history, about legacies, and about our responsibility to our past and our future.” She continued:

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. 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. But Harvard was directly complicit in America’s system of racial bondage from the College’s earliest days in the seventeenth century until slavery in Massachusetts ended in 1783, and Harvard continued to be indirectly involved through extensive financial and other ties to the slave South up to the time of emancipation. This is our history and our legacy, one we must fully acknowledge and understand in order to truly move beyond the painful injustices at its core.

The plaque, she wrote, “is the beginning of an effort to remember them and our shared history”—an effort that will be extended in at least two more ways:

  • the appointment of a “committee of historians from our faculty to advise me about other sites on campus that should be similarly recognized as significant symbols of Harvard’s connections to slavery” (Beckert and Thomas professor of history and of African and African American studies Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham were named co-chairs at the April 6 event); and
  • a Radcliffe Institute conference in March 2017, focusing on universities and slavery, “offering a broader exploration of the complexities of our past.”

Beyond remembering the slaves and “our shared history,” Faust wrote:

There is a second essential purpose in confronting the distressing realities of America’s racial past and Harvard’s place within it. We need to understand the attitudes and assumptions that made the oppressions of slavery possible in order to overcome their vestiges in our own time. It should not be because we feel superior to our predecessors that we interrogate and challenge their actions. We should approach the past with humility because we too are humans with capacities for self-delusion, for moral failure and blindness, for inhumanity. If we can better understand how oppression and exploitation could seem commonplace to so many of those who built Harvard, we may better equip ourselves to combat our own shortcomings and to advance justice and equality in our own time. At its heart, this endeavor must be about Veritas, about developing a clear-sighted view of our past that can enable us to create a better future.

The past never dies or disappears. It continues to shape us in ways we should not try to erase or ignore. In more fully acknowledging our history, Harvard must do its part to undermine the legacies of race and slavery that continue to divide our nation.

This has been a semester of multiple such acknowledgments, beginning with the change in Harvard Law School’s shield (associated with a slave-owning family); extending to last week’s installation of the first portrait of an African American in the Faculty Room; at least peripherally touching on the change in undergraduate House leaders’ title from “master” to “faculty dean”; and now in the plan to explore the University’s deeper history.

Beyond her personal and professional engagement with the issues of slavery in the United States, Faust—a Virginian by birth (in the era of segregation), and historian of the South—has devoted considerable presidential energy to the project. Her rare spring 2015 Morning Prayers address on the civil-rights march in Selma, Alabama, highlighted both that focal event, in which she participated as a 17-year-old, and her return to the scene to commemorate its fiftieth anniversary. Given his central role in the movement, and in Selma, where he was grievously injured, the return of U.S. Representative John R. Lewis to campus (he was awarded an honorary degree in 2012) to participate in the April 6 unveiling ceremony obviously complemented Faust’s larger aims.

“These Stolen Lives”

At the 10:00 a.m. ceremony in Dudley House, William F. Lee, Senior Fellow of the Harvard Corporation, welcomed guests to a “very special and very important occasion.” Understanding and learning from history, he said, are fundamental to any academic institution, and especially this one. The search for Veritas, he said, underpinned a community “genuinely committed to learning and to understanding.” But for all its pride in its past accomplishments, Harvard has found it “harder to shine a light” on disturbing, confounding elements from the past—elements “that we might prefer to leave in the shadows.”

Citing the letter he and President Faust wrote communicating the Corporation’s decision to endorse Harvard Law School’s decision to discontinue using a school shield associated with slavery, Lee invoked the community’s obligation “to honor the past not by seeking to erase it, but rather by bringing it to light and learning from it.”

He welcomed the presence of Representative Lewis, and introduced Faust.

President Faust began by saying, “We’ve gathered today to contemplate our past and its meaning; we join together to acknowledge our history in order to transcend it and to commit ourselves to a better future.” She continued:

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. Harvard takes legitimate pride in its nearly four centuries of learning, discovery and service and in the generations of extraordinary people who have worked, taught and studied here. But today we acknowledge a very different aspect of our past and remind ourselves of individuals whose lives and contributions to our history have been left invisible.

Wadsworth House, she noted, was built

… for the “reception and accommodation” of President Benjamin Wadsworth in 1726, and it housed Harvard’s presidents until the end of Edward Everett’s term in 1849. A remarkable constellation of luminaries used the house at one time or another. It was George Washington’s initial headquarters when he came to take command of the Continental Army in 1775. Ralph Waldo Emerson boarded in the house when he was a student. Andrew Jackson held a reception of students in the house in 1833 after he received his honorary degree. Later in the century, Henry Adams lived there as an assistant professor.

Titus, Venus, Bilhah and Juba lived there, too, as enslaved workers in the households of Benjamin Wadsworth and Edward Holyoke. They did not leave the diaries and letters or other written records that have enabled us to write the history of Wadsworth’s more privileged occupants. But we can glean a few facts about their lives. Venus was purchased by Benjamin Wadsworth in 1726 when she was described as under 20 years old. Church records indicate that she was baptized in First Church Cambridge in 1740. Titus was at least part Native American, and he was baptized and later admitted to full communion. Bilhah appears in Holyoke’s records over a 10-year period, ending with the note of her death in 1765, four years after she had delivered a son. Juba appears both in Holyoke’s papers and in Cambridge city records. Their work, and that of many other people of color, played a significant role in building Harvard. 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.

Quoting her Crimson essay, she said,

“If we can understand how oppression and exploitation could seem commonplace to so many of those who built Harvard, we may better equip ourselves to combat our own shortcomings and to advance justice and equality in our own time….The past never dies or disappears. It continues to shape us in ways we should not try to erase or ignore.” We must never forget.

Faust said of Representative Lewis, “There is no living American who has done more to confront and overcome our national legacies of injustice and oppression. His presence inspires us to recognize what is possible when you make, to borrow his words, the ‘necessary trouble’ to do the work of freedom.” She concluded her remarks by observing:

Despite more than 40 arrests, physical attacks, serious injuries, he has always kept his eyes on the prize. He has always kept his faith that we can build a future better than our past. As President Obama acknowledged on the day of his first inauguration, so much of our racial and human progress in this country over the past six decades is, and I quote our president, “Because of you, John.”

Representative Lewis began by addressing “my beloved brothers and sisters.” Today’s action, he said, helped to reclaim “what has lived too long in silence.” The nation’s people, he said, “have gone to great lengths to wipe out every trace of slavery from American memory,” in face of 400 years of voices calling out to be remembered. “We have been tossing and turning for centuries in a restless sleep,” struggling with those memories. But, “We are a people haunted by amnesia,” because “we just can’t summon the truth of what it is.”

His great-grandfather was a slave, Lewis recalled; when he was elected to Congress to begin service in 1987, he found strange the absence of any commemoration of the contribution slaves had made to building the White House, the Capitol, and other national icons: “Not one word was ever mentioned about their sacrifice.” Now, after he set about remedying this universal erasure, the U.S. Capitol visitor center has an Emancipation Hall, and a plaque there commemorates slaves' role. Slavery is covered in Capitol tours, and there is a bust of Sojourner Truth. He cited Martin Luther King Jr.’s affirmation that “True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice”—the compelling rationale for going to the “necessary trouble to bring the truth to light.” It is fitting of Harvard to do so, he said.

Citing a new day for the University and for America, Lewis thanked Faust for “keeping the faith by giving these souls some of the dignity and honor they did not receive in life but have deserved for centuries.”

After a sustained ovation, Lee introduced the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College. (The student chorus memorably sang in Harvard Yard in 1998, when Nelson Mandela received his honorary degree.) On this April occasion—after unseasonable snow, and given persistent cold—the singers performed inside Dudley House, rather than on the plaza outside, as originally scheduled.

Updated 4-6-16, 2:00 p.m.: Kuumba conductor Sheldon Kirk Reid observed in an e-mail that the singers had performed “One More Time,” a traditional song handed down through time; it was chosen, he said, for its role as “a celebration of continuance, community, survival, and perseverance.” The song, rooted in call and response, is simplicity itself, he wrote:

“One more time! One more time! He allowed us to come together one more time!…”

Acknowledging that some have not made it thus far; the soloist then calls out additional lines which are then echoed by the choir:

“He allowed us to pray together…”

“He allowed us to sing together…”

In addition, we have overlaid the text from Psalm 133, verse 1:

“Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.”

“All in all,” Reid concluded, “a song that we feel is closely tied to our desire to leave a place better than we found it.” And one that seemed perfectly chosen to perform for, and to, Representative Lewis.

And then the crowd went out into the bright, crisp morning for the unveiling and a reception.

Race and Slavery in Context, on Other Campuses

During this academic year, these issues have arisen on other campuses as well.

On April 4, following a review of the legacy of Woodrow Wilson, a former Princeton president (who pursued strict racial segregation and exclusionary policies as president of the United States), that institution rejected student demands that it remove his name from its public-policy school and one of its residential colleges. At the same time, Princeton will take steps to put his legacy in context; the university will be “honest and forthcoming about its history” and transparent “in recognizing Wilson’s failings and shortcomings as well as the visions and achievements that led to the naming of the school and the college in the first place.”

Princeton will also support initiatives to create a multifaceted understanding and representation of Wilson on campus, and to bring attention to “aspects of Princeton’s history that have been forgotten, overlooked, subordinated, or suppressed; diversify campus art and iconography to reflect the institution’s contemporary diversity; change its informal motto from "Princeton in the nation's service and in the service of all nations" to "Princeton in the nation's service and the service of humanity"; and encourage more students from underrepresented groups to pursue doctoral degrees. Inside Higher Education reported the news in detail.

The definition of suitable context for racially charged messages and iconography also arose in the heart of the Deep South. This week, Inside Higher Education (in the same article) and The Chronicle of Higher Education both reported that historians at the University of Mississippi have challenged language on a newly installed plaque next to a campus statue of a Confederate soldier. The language on the plaque reads:

As Confederate veterans were passing from the scene in increasing numbers, memorial associations built monuments in their memory all across the South. This statue was dedicated by citizens of Oxford and Lafayette County in 1906. On the evening of September 30, 1962, the statue was a rallying point where a rebellious mob gathered to prevent the admission of the University’s first African American student. It was also at this statue that a local minister implored the mob to disperse and allow James Meredith to exercise his rights as an American citizen. On the morning after that long night, Meredith was admitted to the University and graduated in August 1963.

This historic structure is a reminder of the University’s past and of its current and ongoing commitment to open its hallowed halls to all who seek truth and knowledge and wisdom.

The historians maintain that that text does not address slavery as central to the Civil War. Nor does it acknowledge the “Lost Cause” ideology and the subsequent record of white supremacy and segregationist law. To better recognize the context in which the monument arose, the historians have proposed this language to provide realistic context:

From the 1870s through the 1920s, memorial associations erected more than 1,000 Confederate monuments throughout the South. These monuments reaffirmed white Southerners’ commitment to a “Lost Cause” ideology that they created to justify Confederate defeat as a moral victory and secession as a defense of constitutional liberties. The Lost Cause insisted that slavery was not a cruel institution and—most importantly—that slavery was not a cause of the Civil War. It also conveyed a belief, widely accepted throughout the United States, in white racial supremacy. Campaigns for legally mandated “Jim Crow” segregation and for the disfranchisement of African-Americans accompanied celebrations of the Lost Cause; these campaigns often sparked racial violence, including lynching.

Historians today recognize slavery as the central cause of the Civil War and freedom as its most important result. Although deadly and destructive, the Civil War freed four million enslaved Southerners and led to the passage of constitutional amendments that promised national citizenship and equal protection of laws, regardless of race. This monument, created in 1906 to recognize the sacrifice of Mississippians who fought to establish the Confederacy as a slaveholding republic, must now remind us that Confederate defeat brought freedom, however imperfect, to millions of people.

The University of Mississippi administration is considering whether to revise the plaque.

Out of the Shadows, at Harvard

At Harvard, the debates have perhaps not risen to that level of institutional consequence and identity. But from now on, when tourists flood into Harvard Yard, as so many do each day, and students and faculty members pass between Wadsworth and Dudley, the University will call to their attention a shadowed place from its past, finally brought into the light.

Read more articles by: John S. Rosenberg

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