We gather 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.
I am honored to welcome so many of you, and it is a privilege beyond measure to have Congressman John Lewis here with us for this occasion. 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.
Many people have helped to make this day happen and to enable us to understand the history of Harvard and slavery. Professor Sven Beckert taught a seminar on this topic in 2007. We are indebted to him and his students for their work producing the booklet each of you receives today. It documents a variety of dimensions of slavery at Harvard, including the history of Wadsworth House, and it raises important questions for further research. Professor Beckert and Professor Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham have generously agreed to chair a committee of Harvard historians who are advising me about additional ways slavery should be remembered. And I thank Dean Liz Cohen who has mobilized her forces at the Radcliffe Institute to plan and host a conference on slavery and universities next March at Radcliffe.
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.
Harvard was directly complicit in America’s system of racial bondage from the era of the 17th-century founding until slavery ended in Massachusetts in 1783, and Harvard continued to be connected to slavery and to benefit from it through financial and other ties until the time of the Civil War. Today we will unveil a plaque that will document the presence of four enslaved individuals in the households of two Harvard presidents who lived in Wadsworth House.
Wadsworth House was constructed for – as described in the Harvard Archives – 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 here as an assistant professor.
Titus, Venus, Bilhah and Juba lived here 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 ten-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.
We must remember for another reason as well. We confront the distressing realities of America’s racial past and Harvard’s place within it to enable ourselves to come to terms with its vestiges in our own time. As I wrote in The Crimson last week, 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 capacity for self-delusion, moral blindness and inhumanity. 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 not forget.
It is now my great honor to introduce our distinguished guest. Congressman John Lewis has fought all his life for freedom. 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.”