City On A Hill?  Activists Demand ‘De-Naming’ of Winthrop House at Harvard College

Printed from:

Activists at Harvard College are demanding that the university rename an undergraduate dormitory named in part for the dominant figure of the early years of Massachusetts because he and his namesake descendant owned slaves.

Winthrop House, formed in 1931, houses about 400 sophomores, juniors, and seniors. It’s one of 12 in Harvard’s so-called “house system.” Each “house” has one dining hall, where most of the students eat. Houses also compete in intramural sports and put on plays, speeches, dinners, and other cultural activities.

The formal name is “John Winthrop House,” which honors two men. One is John Winthrop (1588-1649), a Puritan who served as governor of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay for 12 out of the first 20 years of its existence. He is best remembered for his sermon “A Modell of Christian Charity,” in which he refers to Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew (5:14) calling his disciples “the light of the world.” In modern spelling, Winthrop’s words are:  “”For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.”

John F. Kennedy quoted those words during a speech to the Massachusetts legislature 11 days before he became president in January 1961. Ronald Reagan quoted them often, both before he was elected president and afterward.

Winthrop was the most memorable of the early leaders of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay. As governor he was known as a firm but moderating influence upon the early Congregationalist government. The coastal town of Winthrop northeast of Boston is named for him.

The other honoree of Winthrop House is the first John Winthrop’s great-great-grandson of the same name. That John Winthrop (1714-1779) was a mathematics and science professor at Harvard and briefly served as the college’s president.

Both owned slaves, as a report issued in April 2022 noted. The elder Winthrop was also governor at the time of the Pequot War in the 1630s between English colonists and the Pequot tribe. In that conflict, several tribes fought on the side of the English colonists because the Pequots were expanding into what those tribes considered their territory.

Organizers of the de-naming petition include members of the Generational African American Students Association and Natives at Harvard College

“John Winthrop House carries as its namesake and crest the burden of a century of African slavery and Indigenous massacre,” the de-naming petition reads, according to The Harvard Crimson.

Harvard has implemented a formal process for de-naming. This year’s deadline for submitting a request to de-name something at Harvard is Wednesday, March 1.

The outgoing president, Lawrence Bacow, in October 2020 created an entity called “Committee to Articulate Principles on Renaming,” which, according to its web landing page, “looks at how to deal with statues, buildings, programs, professorships honoring controversial figures.”

Bacow at the time said he hopes the group will help Harvard “become a more enlightened institution.”

Nine of the undergraduate “houses” at Harvard are named for presidents of Harvard College. Five early presidents of the college owned slaves, including one (Increase Mather) for whom a house (Mather House) is named, according to the university’s April 2022 report. Others have buildings or streets named for them in the neighborhood. Several buildings in or near Harvard Yard are named for colonial slaveholders who had a Harvard connection or for their close relatives.

Three of the 12 undergraduate houses are named for donors; all three are at what is known as “the Quad,” and were originally dormitories for the former Radcliffe College, a women’s school later subsumed into Harvard University. In 1970, the then-Radcliffe College opened a residential dormitory called Currier House, named for a 1956 graduate who died in an airplane crash, at the behest of her mother, who donated the money for the building. In 1984, the university renamed South House “Cabot House” to honor donors. In 1995, the university renamed North House “Pforzheimer House” after major donors.

In 2014, Harvard ended a longstanding policy of not naming schools within the university for donors, which according to one account has “opened the charity floodgates” to the school.

Harvard College is itself named for the school’s first major donor – John Harvard (1607-1638), who when he died left half his estate to what was then called “New College” in Cambridge. (Historians say Harvard’s will was oral, on his deathbed, to his wife.)

The university’s April 2022 report on slavery (Report of the Presidential Committee on Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery) does not mention John Harvard. But there is apparently no record of his having owned slaves. A biography (John Harvard and His Times, by Henry C. Shelley, 1907) does not mention the word “slave.”


New to NewBostonPost?  Conservative media is hard to find in Massachusetts.  But you’ve found it.  Now dip your toe in the water for two bucks — $2 for two months.  And join the real revolution.