After months of student protests, Harvard Law School could soon stop using its official symbol, a shield based on the crest of an 18th-century slaveholder whose donation paid for the first professorship of law at the university.
In a letter to the university’s president and fellows released on Friday, the dean of the law school, Martha L. Minow, argued that the time had come to dissociate the school from the legacy of Isaac Royall, who left Harvard part of a fortune acquired through the labor of slaves at his father’s sugar plantation in Antigua.
Every year, the dean wrote, she welcomes new students with a discussion of the benefactor’s portrait in which she notes “that while Harvard University at that time acted legally in accepting the gift, it is crucial that we never confine ourselves to solely what is currently lawful, for the great evil of slavery happened within the confines of the law.”
The committee was formed in November, after a racially charged incident in which pieces of black tape that had been placed over sheaves of wheat on shields by protesters were used to deface portraits of black faculty members.
“Keep alive” means to be unrelentingly frank and open with the whole world, now and into the future, about an important thing that went into making this institution. Maintaining the current shield, and tying it to a historically sound interpretive narrative about it, would be the most honest and forthright way to insure that the true story of our origins, and connection to the people whom we should see as our progenitors (the enslaved people at Royall’s plantations, not Isaac Royall), is not lost.
Gordon-Reed, who won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in History for “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family,” warned that by getting rid of the shield, the school would be essentially covering up the fact that “we are joined in history to a group of people entrapped in the tragedy of the Atlantic slave trade.”
A. J. Clayborne, a spokesman for the student group Royall Must Fall, called that argument misguided. Clayborne and his fellow students have been calling for the shield to be removed since October, inspired by the success of a similar campaign by South African students, Rhodes Must Fall, which managed to have a statue of the colonial administrator Cecil Rhodes removed from the University of Cape Town last year.
By preserving the shield in any form, Clayborne said in an interview, “you’re essentially honoring the legacy of the slaveholder,” as well as causing “real psychological distress to minority communities at the school every day.”
Clayborne welcomed the dean’s recommendation to get rid of the shield, which must be approved by Harvard’s president and fellows, but added that there are wider problems of structural racism at the school that still need to be addressed. “The law school is an institution built for whites,” he said, “and the school never reckoned with that fact.”
To press those concerns, he and other students have formed another group, Reclaim Harvard Law, “to identify the sources of systemic oppression and to discuss ways in which this oppression might be remedied in the law school.” That group is now occupying a student lounge they have renamed Belinda Hall, in honor of a woman enslaved by the Royall family in Massachusetts, who described her captivity in vivid detail in 1783, when she petitioned the state for support, after Isaac Royall fled for England during the revolution.
According to the website of the Royall House and Slave Quarters, a museum on the site of the family home, close to Harvard, the former slave’s petition, which was partially successful, has been described as “the first call for reparations for American slavery.”
“I think if you erase the whole past, it’s too easy to feel innocent,” Faust, a Civil War historian, said. “It’s too easy to not learn from it and to think that you’re not going to make any mistakes in the present—you’re better than those mistakes. We’re not better than those mistakes.”