Is Harvard ready to abandon slavery-linked seal?

A slave owner's family does not represent Harvard values, said a committee of Harvard students, professors, and alumni.

Harvard Law School via AP/File
The Harvard Law School seal is shown attached to a sign on the Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Mass. A committee of faculty, students, alumni and staff recommended Friday, that Harvard Law School drop the official shield depicting three bundles of wheat. The image was borrowed from the family crest of Isaac Royall Jr., a wealthy merchant who donated his estate to create the first law professorship at Harvard University. Royall made much of his wealth through the slave trade.

A coat of arms designed to honor the Royall family, depicting three bundles of wheat, has served as the seal of Harvard Law School since 1936.

But now the school is re-examining the 80-year-old emblem amid fresh outrage at the slave-owning family. Isaac Royall Jr. left a bequest in 1781 that later endowed Harvard’s first law professorship in the late 18th century.  

"We are not judging Isaac Royall, a man of the 18th century, by standards of the 21st century," wrote the 12-member committee after months of open meetings and deliberation. "Instead, we are asking whether an institution in the 21st century should be represented by a man of the 18th century whose only legacy was his money."

Their 11-page recommendation concluded, "An official symbol ... must more closely represent the values of the law school, which the current shield does not."

The nine signers of the brief included Janet Halley, the current Royall Professor of Law. A tenth committee member concurred and the other two submitted a four-page dissenting opinion.

Martha Minow, dean of the law school, created the committee of students, professors, and alumni in response to student group Royall Must Fall, inspired by the #RhodesMustFall group that campaigned for the removal of a Cecil Rhodes statue at Oriel College, Oxford.

Students have protested the seal since last fall, echoing similar Black Lives Matter protests in colleges and legislatures across the country that call for a reexamination of flags, statues, buildings, and other memorials to Confederate leaders, slaveholders, or KKK members.

Some defenders of the symbols say their meaning can be independent of any racist history, while others argue that removing the symbols merely whitewashes the stain of slavery.

“People should have to think about slavery when they think of the Harvard shield; but from now on, with a narrative that emphasizes the enslaved, not the Royall family,” wrote committee member Annette Gordon-Reed, a professor of legal history, in her dissenting opinion. 

“When you rename, you facilitate forgetting,” argued Alfred Brophy, a law professor at the University of North Carolina, in an interview with Story Hickley of The Christian Science Monitor last month.

He was discussing calls to rename the University of Alabama's Morgan Hall, named in 1911 for state Senator and KKK leader John Tyler Morgan.

"Building names are gauges of how we think, but renaming doesn’t solve racism," he said.

Harvard has undergone a series of changes in recent months in an effort to address concerns about the racial climate. In late February, Harvard College officially abandoned the title “house master” on the grounds that the designation, used for generations at some Ivy League institutions, is antiquated and reminiscent of slavery. Several other universities, including Yale, Princeton and M.I.T., have decided to abolish or to consider abolishing the title as well, reports the Atlantic.

The decision to change the seal now rests with the Harvard Corporation.

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