Harvard activists push to purge Law School crest
By Evan Lips | November 5, 2015, 11:33 EST
CAMBRIDGE – Activists at Harvard Law School are asking the esteemed school to ditch the wheat. Student protesters claim the sheaves in the Harvard Law insignia “stain the school’s contribution to humanity.”
The sheaves on the school’s crest are reproductions of the coat of arms of the slave-holding family of Isaac Royall Jr., who in 1779 designated the proceeds from the posthumous sale of 200 acres of his land to fund the first professor to teach at Harvard’s new school of law.
Students backing the movement to erase the Royall sheaves say they also seek to express support for a movement in South Africa protesting rising tuition costs at schools in that country.
“We stand in solidarity with our fellow students in South Africa who are drawing attention to the inequalities that exist in access to higher education and to the continued colonization of campuses,” the activists proclaimed in a recent statement published in the Harvard Law Record. “This school cannot continue to endorse an insignia that invalidates the humanity of an entire race. ROYALL MUST FALL!”
The statement published in the Law Record was unsigned, but the Harvard Crimson has identified Mawuse H. Vormawor as the law student who organized the campaign and Alexander J. Clayborne as another law student involved in the effort.
A law school spokeswoman, Michelle Deakin, declined to comment.
The situation heating up at South Africa’s universities began with September student protests at the University of Cape Town and the University of Witwatersrand over tuition hikes. As the Twitter hashtag #FEESMUSTFALL spread across social media, so did protests at additional universities in South Africa.
Student activists are comparing the situation to pre-1994 apartheid, claiming universities in South Africa fail to admit or employ blacks.
— till Babylon falls (@thando_mgqo) November 4, 2015
Participants in the movement now also hail from the U.K.’s Oxford University, as activist there are clamoring to force the school to remove a statue honoring Cecil Rhodes, a British-born businessman and politician who founded the DeBeers diamond mining firm and was a major figure in South Africa during the late 1800s. A statue of Rhodes at the University of Cape Town was boarded-up earlier this year while a petition drive launched by Oxford activists urges school officials to remove its statue. The activists created their own Twitter hashtag as well, #RhodesMustFall. At Harvard, activists formally launched the #RoyallMustFall movement at an Oct. 23 rally. According to the Crimson, the rally attracted about 25 people.
Isaac Royall’s coat-of-arms, (the three stacked wheat sheaves) which remain Harvard Law School’s crest to this day is a badge of shame.#RMF
— RoyallMustFall (@RoyallMustFall) Oct. 21, 2015
It’s not the first time the Royall family legacy has ignited controversy at Harvard. When she was named dean of the law school in 2003, Elena Kagan – now a U.S. Supreme Court justice – refused to accept the Royall Chair of Law professorship that exists to this day.
“As a member of the Class of ’78, I fully support your efforts to eradicate symbols of a slave holder from Harvard’s crest,” McLaughlin wrote. “As a civil rights lawyer you also have my full support. Please let me know what I can do to help.”
Earlier Wednesday, the group added another post to its Facebook page, clarifying its stance in response to a Washington Post report.
“What is absent from this article is that Isaac Royall was not just a slaveholder, he was complicit in murdering upwards of 70 slaves and burning at least one slave, Hector, alive,” the post states, referring to a slave overseer for Royall’s family at its plantation in Antigua.
Records indicate that Hector, who was himself a slave, was burned alive after he tried to spearhead a slave revolt. According to a 2008 Harvard Blackletter Law Journal article, Isaac Royall Jr. was 18 years old at the time. The article argues that the Royall family’s wealth was “thus derived from a slave-based empire.”
The Royall family returned to New England from Antigua in 1737, and when they moved into a home in Medford, they brought with them more than two-dozen enslaved people, according to the Royall House and Slave Quarters historic site. It says Isaac Royall Sr. made a fortune as a sea-going trader in sugar, rum and slaves, and used it to buy the 500-acre farm once owned by John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. At the time, slave owning was legal in the British colony.
Daniel R. Coquillette, a visiting Harvard Law professor who recently co-authored a book about the school’s history, said he’s sympathetic to the activists’ cause but stressed that he’s against erasing signs of the school’s origins.
“It’s like trying to change the name of Washington, D.C., because George Washington owned slaves,” Coquillette said Thursday. “It’s part of our history and we should be able to face up to what the history is.”
Coquillette noted that the school only began using the Royall wheat sheaves in its crest in 1936.
“Obviously because Isaac Royall was the person who founded the school,” Coquillette added.
Coquillette’s book, On the Battlefield of Merit, was released on Oct. 23. That day also marked the first rally by the student activists to urge Harvard officials to change the school’s emblem.
“This is the man whose crest adorns our cups, mugs, t shirts, pens, keychains, books, walls, letterhead et cetera,” the activist group’s most recent Facebook post states.
“We are not trying to forget our history; we are trying to remember it. The seal on its own says nothing of the mass murderer it stands for, yet it emblazons all of our clothes, letterhead, mugs, etc. without any footnotes or context. Instead of doing nothing, we should change it and then educate people about the history of this school and its horrible connection to the slave trade.”