Harvard Law bows to activist calls to drop slaveholder crest
By Evan Lips | March 4, 2016, 13:43 EST
CAMBRIDGE – Royall appears to be falling.
Harvard Law School, which last year saw activist students demand that the institution scrub the emblem honoring the family of an early benefactor, Isaac Royall Jr., over his ownership of slaves 300 years ago, caved to pressures this week and voted to support dumping the crest.
Martha Minow, dean of the law school, in November tasked a committee to examine the issue and make a recommendation on whether to drop the Royall family crest, an image of three wheat sheaves, that the school adopted in 1937.
On Thursday the committee released its recommendation, urging the body that governs the operations of Harvard University to erase the symbol:
“The Committee respectfully recommends that the President and Fellows of Harvard College declare that the shield designed by Pierre de Chaignon la Rose in 1936 based on the Royall family crest is no longer the official or authorized shield of the Law School,” read a statement posted on the law school’s website. “The Committee makes this recommendation to the President and Fellows rather than simply asking the Law School to cease use of the shield because we believe that if the Law School is to have an official symbol, it must more closely represent the values of the Law School, which the current shield does not.”
“In making this recommendation, the Committee understands and regrets the disappointment it will cause fellow members of the Law School community for whom the shield invokes not Isaac Royall and his slaves but rather the institution they are proud to be part of.”
The move won praise from student activists who used social media and sit-ins as a tool to draw attention their efforts to repudiate the seal. The Facebook page “Harvard: Royall Must Fall” was updated Friday morning with a post that read, “ROYALL IS FALLING,” and featured a link to the committee’s report and a memo from Minow announcing the decision and her support for its decision.
“As for the shield itself, I endorse the committee’s recommendation to retire it,” Minow wrote in her memo, pointing out that the shield was not introduced until 1936 as part of a university celebration. She said the crest was “used occasionally for decades and used more commonly only recently, and does not extend back to the origin of the School or even much beyond recent memory.”
The final decision will be made by members of the university’s governing board, the President and Fellows, which is the formal name for the the Harvard Corporation.
“If the Corporation agrees with the recommendation, preparation for the bicentennial of the School in 2017 gives us the opportunity to create recommendations to the Corporation for a new symbol that represents our mission and values going forward,” Minow wrote.
Royall, whose father had a plantation on the Caribbean island of Antigua and was complicit in murdering close to 70 slaves there, moved to Medford after his family left the estate in 1737. They brought with them more than two-dozen slaves to work the 500-acre farm they occupied, now the Royall House and Slave Quarters historic site. A the time, slave-holding was legal in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
When the younger Royall died in 1781, he left part of his estate to Harvard College, which ultimately used the wealth to endow the first law professor’s position at the school, in 1815. To many historians, the bequest and its use led to descriptions of Royall as the Law School’s founder.
Activist students and their supporters on Friday took to social media to celebrate the panel’s decision and Minow’s support of it. Many remarked that more work still needs to be done in the name of stripping the school’s link to historical figures they’ve deemed are questionable.
Like our comrades in SA, we know changing shields, names of buildings, and statutes are not the goals of our movement… #RoyallMustFall
— Ella Baeker (@progressagent) March 4, 2016
— Ella Baeker (@progressagent) March 4, 2016
It wasn’t the first time Harvard bowed to demands for changes in its long traditions. In December, the university dropped the title of “house master,” the term used to denote senior faculty members who live with students at Harvard College’s residential halls. Last week, the Harvard Crimson student newspaper said the school announced that the title “house dean” will be used instead.
View a copy of the committee’s decision here:
View a copy of Minow’s memo here: