UPDATED: April 7, 2016, at 11:24 p.m.
Issues of racial diversity and inclusion in higher education have become some of the most urgent, important, and divisive topics on college campuses today. These critical conversations rightly touch on nearly every aspect of students’ educational experiences, but at Ivy League schools like Harvard, issues of institutional history have been particularly salient. Some activists have called for the renaming of buildings like Mather House or symbols like the Law School shield because of their association with slaveholders.
In this environment, President Faust was joined by Georgia Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis on Wednesday to unveil a plaque outside Wadsworth House to four slaves—Titus, Venus, Juba, and Bilhah—who had worked there in the 1700s. As she put it in a Crimson op-ed announcing the plaque, “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.”
These issues are tough, and the conversations they prompt are not easy. Reasonable people may disagree on the best way to proceed. At the Law School, Annette Gordon-Reed, one of America’s foremost scholars on slavery, dissented from a committee report advocating for the removal of the Law School crest. In the past, we have disagreed with name or seal changes. There is legitimate scholarship on both sides of this issue, and we must have these debates in a thoughtful way.
When we can cut through that divisiveness, however, we should always seek to do so. Simply put, placing this plaque is a good idea. Here, we have an opportunity to recognize the sins of history without concern that we are erasing the past. As a community, we are able to become more aware of how our ancestors erred and thus how we might seek a better path.
Harvard was nearly 150 years old when it witnessed the birth of this country. Since then, it has been present for the successes and celebrations but also the trials and tribulations. As students, we treasure this American story when we remember our alumni and our history, but we must also tell that story honestly and in full. It would do a disservice to ourselves and to our history to leave out the parts that are intertwined with our nation’s original sin.
Some Harvard students have lived in buildings in which slaves once labored. That should shock us with the sobering reality of history. Of course, it is not all just history: we continue to struggle with the legacies of slavery and racial discrimination to this day. The reason President Faust recently unveiled a portrait of the late Reverend Peter Gomes—the first portrait of a person of color to hang in University Hall—is to remind us of our often-halting progress on issues of inclusion.
We know that the installation of this plaque will neither solve the problems of race nor immediately ameliorate the lives of minority students at Harvard. It is easy to declare this a public relations sham or to deride it as a meek effort of appeasement. We deeply hope, and optimistically believe, that that is not so. We see this as merely one small step in a broader effort to make progress on a difficult issue.
As long as the legacy of slavery plagues our campus and our nation, we will and must continue to have tough discussions. We may not always agree with all the demands of activists, but we are glad to live on a campus with them. They animate campus discussion, rightly forcing us to grapple with our tragic past and present.
For as much as we have regard for Harvard, the highest form of that regard is to understand our roots. Learning the lessons of history is not a dirty task; informing ourselves of where we have sinned is the only way to forge a different future. In the midst of these oft acrimonious conversations, Wednesday’s ceremony was an opportunity to come together for a moment as a community.
Congressman Lewis said at the unveiling that the plaque represented “the distance we’ve come and the progress we’ve made [but] that we must never ever forget our past.” Surely we can all agree that we have come far, and yet still have so far left to go.
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