Harvard University is the latest university to try to make amends with its slavery-tainted past.
On Friday, the storied university held a conference to explore the relationship between colleges and slavery, where university President Drew Faust said the school must confront its past to 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. “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.”
ABC News reports that the school and its ties to slavery run deep. At least two of Harvard’s early presidents brought slaves to live and work on campus; the university also invested in merchant voyages trading crops produced by slaves. Sadly, slavery even crept into the school’s canon: 19th century Harvard scientist Louis Agassiz promoted theories about race that were used to justify slavery.
Last year, Harvard 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 shield was eventually removed and President Faust soon after called for further exploration of the school’s relationship with slavery.
Author and keynote speaker at the conference Ta-Nehisi Coates reportedly garnered deep applause when he suggested colleges make some sort of financial reparations for their role in slavery; he also commended Georgetown University for its work around the subject.
“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. “You have to do the right thing and try to make some amends.”