In other ivory towers

March 9, 2016 by Francesca Paris, Executive Editor

On Friday, a Harvard Law School committee recommended to the university’s president and fellows that the school revoke its seal, which displays the crest of a former slave-owning family.

The student activist group Royall Must Fall called for the seal’s removal last year in late October, arguing that it endorsed a legacy of slaveholding and contributed to an inhospitable envi-ronment for minority students.

“These symbols set the tone for the rest of the school, and the fact that we hold up the Harvard crest as something to be proud of when it represents something so ugly is a profound disap-pointment and should be a source of shame for the whole school,” Alexander J. Clayborne, one of the law students involved with Royall Must Fall, told the Harvard Crimson in October.

In November, an act of racially-charged vandalism involving black tape stuck across the faces of black professors’ portraits in Harvard’s Wasserstein Hall led to a police investigation. The Har-vard Crimson reported that the incident prompted Dean of Harvard Law School Martha L. Minow to announce that the school has a “serious problem” with racism. Minow subsequently created the committee to reconsider the seal.

The committee was made up of 12 members, including five faculty members, two alumni, three students and two staff members. Bruce H. Mann, a professor at Harvard Law School, served as the committee’s chair. Last week, after spending months analyzing literature about the seal’s origin and soliciting feedback from the community, the committee published an 11-page recommendation and a four-page dissenting opinion by two members.

The report ends with an appeal: “It is that symbol [the Harvard crest] that we request the President and Fellows to release us from.”

The dissenting opinion from Professor of Harvard Law School Annette Gordon-Reed argued that retaining the seal would “keep alive” the memory of the slaves, whose forced labor ultimately helped found Harvard Law School. She wrote that the purpose of the seal was to “marry the memory of the injustice done to people enslaved on the Royall plantation to Harvard Law School’s modern commitment to justice and equality.” The seal features three sheaves of wheat on a blue backdrop with the motto, “Veritas.”

Pierre de Chaignon la Rose designed the shield with the emblems for the rest of Harvard’s graduate schools, adopting the crest of the Royall family as part of the design. Isaac Royall Jr. was a slaveholder who made a donation in the late eighteenth century that endowed Harvard’s first law professorship. Royall bequeathed land in his will to Harvard College upon his death in 1781, but Harvard Law School was not founded until 1817.

According to the committee’s report, the Harvard Corporation adopted the shield as the school’s seal without knowledge of the crest’s connection to slavery. The report argued that Royall’s “only legacy was his money.”

This recommendation comes on the heels of the decision by the masters of the school’s 12 undergraduate residential Houses to change their title from “House master,” which students have associated with slavery. In December, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana announced that he would inform the College of the new title early next year.

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