In 1976, archivists at Harvard’s natural history museum opened a drawer and discovered a haunting portrait of a shirtless enslaved man named Renty, gazing sorrowfully but steadily at the camera. Taken on a South Carolina plantation in 1850, it had been used by the Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz to formulate his now-discredited ideas about racial difference.
On Friday, Harvard’s president, Drew Gilpin Faust, stood at a lectern under a projection of Renty’s face and began a rather different enterprise: a major public conference exploring the long-neglected connections between universities and slavery.
Harvard had been “directly complicit” in slavery, Ms. Faust acknowledged, before moving to a more present-minded statement of purpose.
“Only by coming to terms with history,” she said, “can we free ourselves to create a more just world.”
The gathering, which featured a keynote address by the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, drew an overflow crowd of about 500, including researchers from more than 30 campuses. Between sessions, there was plenty of chatter about grants and administration politics, as well as some wry amazement, as one scholar was overheard saying that “something we’ve been talking about for 200 years has suddenly become urgent.”
Alfred L. Brophy, a legal historian at the University of North Carolina and the author of “University, Court and Slave,” a study of pro-slavery thought at antebellum Southern colleges, described what he called a “sea change” in attitude.
“People who engaged in this research were once criticized, or had their jobs threatened, or were rejected by their administrations,” he said in an interview. “Now the people doing this work are lifted up.”