CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Harvard University publicly acknowledged its deep ties to colonial-era slavery on Friday, casting a light on parts of its history that long remained in the shadows.
At a conference that Harvard organized to explore the relationship between colleges and slavery, university President Drew Faust said the school must confront the grimmer parts of its past before it can move forward.
“Harvard was directly complicit in slavery from the college’s earliest days in the 17th century until the system of bondage ended in Massachusetts in 1783,” Faust, a historian, said in her opening speech. “We look at both past and present today in the firm belief that only by coming to terms with history can we free ourselves to create a more just world.”
Scholars from several universities gathered at the Cambridge campus to present research detailing how Harvard and other early American schools benefited from slavery.
At least two of Harvard’s early presidents brought slaves to live and work on campus, historians said. Some of the school’s major donors made their fortunes through slave labor or the slave trade. The university invested in merchant voyages trading crops produced by slaves. The 19th century Harvard scientist Louis Agassiz promoted theories about race that were used to justify slavery.
“Some of our most esteemed educational institutions are also the product of some of the most horrific violence that has ever descended on any group of people,” said Sven Beckert, a Harvard history professor who has studied the school’s slavery ties.
Other colleges, including the University of Virginia, used slaves to build and operate their campuses, and some were founded by wealthy merchants involved in the slave trade.
Harvard is the latest in a string of universities that have sought to confront their connections to slavery recently, often only after students demanded it.
Last month, Yale University agreed to change the name of a residential college that honored a 19th century alumnus who was a fierce supporter of slavery. Columbia University issued a report in January examining its link to slavery.
Georgetown University announced last year it will give admission preference to the descendants of 272 slaves who were sold in 1838 to save the school’s finances.
At Harvard, the topic reached a crescendo last year after students demanded the law school abandon its coat of arms, which was taken from the family crest of a slave-owner who helped found the school.
The law school eventually agreed to drop the shield, and weeks later Faust called on further exploration of the school’s past relationship with slavery.
But there’s still debate at Harvard about how to reconcile for past wrongdoings. At the conference, writer and keynote speaker Ta-Nehisi Coates drew applause when he suggested colleges make some sort of financial reparations for their role in slavery.
“I don’t know how you conduct research that shows that your very existence is rooted in a great crime, and you just, well, shrug, and maybe at best say I’m sorry,” said Coates, who writes for The Atlantic magazine. “You have to do the right thing and try to make some amends.”
Coates praised Georgetown’s effort to help slave descendants but said there’s still work to be done.
Faust said the university will continue to investigate its past, adding that the conference was only the “beginning of a very important trajectory of discovery.”