Bill Lee, my friend. Thank you, Madam President, for that warm and kind introduction.
My beloved brothers and sisters. I’m honored to join you and the Harvard University community on this important occasion. I want to thank the students and the professors of the Harvard and Slavery research seminar for revealing this important history, so we could proclaim today what had lived too long in silence.
For nearly four centuries we have believed that the best way to cleanse this nation of the stain of slavery is to move on. We have torn down historic landmarks, blotted our names from the history books, and reworked the narrative of slavery. And we try to forget. We have gone to great lengths to wipe out every trace of slavery from America’s memory, hoping that the legacy of a great moral wrong would be lost forever in a sea of forgetfulness.
But for four hundred years, the voices of generations have been calling us to remember. We have been tossing and turning for centuries in a restless sleep. We have pleaded with them to be still. But they will not be silent. We are people suffering from amnesia. We are haunted by a past that is shut up in our bones. But we just can’t stomach the truth of what it is.
My great-grandfather was a slave. And when I first got to Congress in 1987, I was like the students of the Harvard seminar. I noticed there was a strange absence of the contributions slaves had made to the construction of the federal buildings and the life of Congress. 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 actions and their sacrifice.
So I began a quest to have their work remembered. And now visitors to the Capitol are welcomed to Emancipation Hall. A plaque in the Capitol Visitor Center commemorates the contributions slaves made to the building of the nation’s capital, to the front porch of America. Their work is included in the texts of Capitol tours, and a bust is there of Sojourner Truth, a former slave and abolitionist from New York.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used to say, true peace is not just the absence of tension but the presence of justice. Sometimes we have to disturb the order of things. Sometimes we have to get in the way, or get in good trouble – necessary trouble – to bring truth to light.
That is why it is so fitting and most appropriate that Harvard University, the first college in the nation, pause and pay tribute to the lives of these slaves who served the University and its first president with great distinction.
Madam President, thank you for being you. Thank you for your courage. Thank you for your leadership. Thank you for never, ever, giving up or giving in, but keeping the faith by giving these souls some of the dignity and the honor they did not receive in life, but have deserved for centuries.
It is a new day, a new period, for Harvard University and for America. Thank you very much.