On a cloudy day this summer, Roberta Wolff-Platt paid a visit to Christ Church, a short walk from Harvard Yard. Standing at the edge of a crypt in the church basement, she marveled that her ancestor Darby Vassall, born enslaved, had been buried here, improbably sharing a grave with the couple who owned his parents.
Ms. Wolff-Platt, who is 80, learned just a few years ago that she was related to the Vassalls. That revelation led to an even more surprising connection to Harvard University — a place she had lived near much of her life but where she had never imagined she belonged.
Thanks to a student research project on the university’s ties to slavery, she and her extended family have become the first to be publicly identified as descendants of enslaved men and women who served Harvard’s presidents, professors and — in their case — benefactors.
To talk about the possibility that her ancestors were enslaved was a family taboo, Ms. Wolff-Platt said. “It shouldn’t be that way, but the older people, they never spoke of it.”
Now she has been swept up in Harvard’s campaign, announced in April, to make amends for its collusion in the slave trade. As part of that effort, Harvard plans to trace the lineage of enslaved people at the college to the present day, saying that direct acknowledgment of lineage “is a vital step in its quest for truth, reconciliation and repair.”
Harvard joins universities like Georgetown, Brown and the University of Virginia in trying to atone for their links to slavery by erecting monuments, renaming buildings and, in Georgetown’s case, offering the children of descendants the equivalent of legacy status for admission.