Harvard Earns Major PR Win, Recognizes Slavery in Its Past

Can't drive forward without looking in the rear view mirror every once in awhile.

The first step toward change is awareness. The second step is acceptance.
~ Nathaniel Branden, psychotherapist and author

Let that quote sink in. With any campaign that has a social component in PR, the ultimate goal is change.

However, that can’t happen without an awareness movement. What Harvard University has done with its own stain on history should be considered more than a recognition, but the makings of a revolution.

So, here’s a word: Slavery. Hard to discuss. Difficult to understand. Impossible to accept.

Next to what happened to the Native Americans in this country, slavery is easily the most unspeakable and abhorrent aspect of U.S. history. It took place from the moment the first settlers stepped foot in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607.

The majority of historic locations in America want to sweep it under a rug and hope people don’t break a hip when they trip over it. Harvard University learned from that mistake and did something different — they created awareness, hoping for change.

Harvard president Drew Faust sparked that change at his hallowed university when she penned an op-ed entitled ‘Recognizing Slavery at Harvard.’ What began as a higher education leader hoping for awareness has become a moment for acceptance.

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.

As the late John Hope Franklin, distinguished historian and Harvard Ph.D., put it, “Good history is a good foundation for a better present and future.

The Boston Globe reports Faust — who, by the way, is a Civil War historian who grew up in Virginia — was joined by stalwart in the American civil rights movement, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, for a plaque unveiling to recognize four slaves who were forced to work at Wadsworth House, which is the second oldest building on campus and originally served as the president’s residence.

harvard plaque 2

The plaque recognizes Titus, Venus, Juba, and Bilhah, who lived and worked in Wadsworth House as slaves for President Benjamin Wadsworth from 1725 until 1737, and President Edward Holyoke from 1737 until 1769.

“We name the names to remember these stolen lives,” explained Faust.

The plaque may seem on the front as lipstick on a pig, but it is so much more by PR standards. This began with an idea, continued as a manifesto, and is now a permanent fixture that creates awareness, introduces acceptance, and begins the slow healing process of change.

We should all be so deliberate in our remembrance.


[PHOTO: Keith Bedford/Boston Globe]