In an essay published in Harvard’s student-run newspaper The Crimson, Harvard President Drew Faust argued the university must recognize its ties to the slave trade, writing that “the presence and contributions of people of African descent at Harvard is still an untold story.”

President Faust says the university will recognize four slaves who lived and worked in Wadsworth Hall – the second oldest building at Harvard – with a plaque. The university will also host a conference on higher education and slavery next March.

“I think it’s an important first step,” said MIT Historian Craig Steven Wilder, the author of Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery and the Troubled History of America’s Universities.

Wilder says the majority of the country’s top colleges founded during the Colonial period were built, partly, on American slavery.

“Every school from Harvard to Dartmouth. There are eight Ivy League schools. Seven of them were founded in the Colonial period, and they’re founded with wealth drawn from the slave trade or from human slavery – plantation slavery,” said Wilder, adding that more needs to be done to recognize that history. “I think it’s important to open up that conversation because when we change the way we think about their history, we also change the way we think about their possibilities today,” he said.

Faust’s acknowledgment follows the recent announcement that Harvard Law School will change its shield, which resembles the family crest of a slaveholder who was an early donor to the school.

Related: Commentary: Truth, Shame, And History At Harvard Law

Law students who have been occupying Wasserstein Hall for the past 50 days say symbolic gestures are nice, but are demanding more substantial changes, such as hiring more diverse faculty.

“This institution has a long history of ignoring these sorts of things and it’s nice to see some recognition from the president of the university and now that we have it I think it’s time to start moving the conversation forward with how to correct the legacies that President Faust brings to light,” said A.J. Clayborn, a member of Reclaim Harvard Law.

Another protester, Bianca Tylek, says that, for now, she’s withholding judgment on Faust’s announcement.

“I would also like to see something I think that’s certainly larger than a plaque. I guess I’d be interested in seeing what this exact plaque would look like, but we have a lot of plaques around the law school. Some are about as big as my thumb,” said Tylek.

Whatever the size of the plaque, student activists are encouraged that Faust – and other administrators – have at least agreed with them that racism and discrimination is still a problem on campus.

Earlier: Harvard Law School Students Occupy Wasserstein Hall

[Cross-posted at On Campus: the WGBH News Higher Education Blog]

Kirk Carapezza

Kirk Carapezza is the lead reporter for On Campus. Kirk has reported for Wisconsin Public Radio in Madison, Wis., and Vermont Public Radio in Montpelier, Vt. He's been a writer and producer at WBUR in Boston; a teacher and coach at Nativity Preparatory School in New Bedford, Mass.; a Fenway Park tour guide; and a tourist abroad.

Kirk received his B.A. from the College of the Holy Cross and earned his M.S. from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. When he's not reporting or editing stories on campus, you can find him posting K's on the Wall at Fenway.