Harvard Law students have started a campaign to drop the historic seal of Harvard because it is tied to an 18th-century slaveholder. The students organization, Royall Must Fall, have held campus demonstrations demanding the removal of the seal. The three sheaves of wheat on the seal come from the Royall family crest (which raises the compromise possibility of just replacing that portion of the seal attributed to the Royall family). Third-year law student Alexander Clayborne insists that the effort is part of “[o]ur larger goals include decolonization of the law school in general and decolonization of the law school curriculum.”
Isaac Royall Jr. was a wealthy merchant who donated his estate to create the first law professorship at Harvard University. He was not simply a slave holder but made much of his wealth through the slave trade and owned dozens of slaves at its Massachusetts house. His home is now a museum. After his father’s death and his taking over the “Ten Hills Farm” estate, Royall acquired a large number of slaves. Dan Coquillette, a visiting professor at Harvard’s law school, has accused Royall of brutality, including burning one salve at the stake. While Royall was known to support the Patriots in the revolution, his ties to royalists led to his inclusion on the list of those under the Massachusetts Banishment Act of 1778. He fled to Nova Scotia. He would ultimately die in England of smallpox in 1781. In his will of 1779, Royall left land to Harvard College to establish the first professorship in law at the school.
Notably, Coquillette does not agree that the seal should be removed because he doesn’t “like sanitizing history . . . To obscure the history of the school obscures how far we’ve come.”
However, the students insist it is time for the seal to go. Third-year law student Alexander Clayborne insists that “Our larger goals include decolonization of the law school in general and decolonization of the law school curriculum.”
I do not subscribe to the efforts strip portraits of Framers or others who were slaveholders. Such ownership is a dark and sad part of our history. It is something to be taught with the positive elements of history for a better understanding of the life and context of our foundation as a nation. While it should not be erased, it should not be ignored. These students are doing the school a service in reminding everyone of this past and the crimes committed against African-Americans. I simply disagree with the effort to strip the historical reference of the seal.
In the meantime, Harvard Law School is facing what the dean has labeled a “hate crime.” Dean Martha Minow said that portraits for black faculty were “defaced” by the placement of black tape over their faces. Professor Ronald S. Sullivan Jr. posted the water below to say “This is my portrait at Harvard Law School” showing a wide piece of gaffer’s tape placed diagonally across his face.
This was replaced however by a positive action from the student body
Harvard police are investigating the “hate crime.” There is no evidence of who was the culprit or why these acts of defacing occurred.
Recently, protesters seeking to force Harvard to drop its seal put black tape over the seal at various spots in the law school. It is unclear if the two acts were related or whether the recent taping of the portraits was in response to the earlier taping of the seals.
Currently, the assumption is that this was an act by someone wishing to deface the pictures of black professors as a racist act. It is possible that the defacing could have been viewed by some as a statement of a different kind: part of earlier protests against racism at the university. Would it still be a hate crime if the portraits were defaced by someone protesting racism? What if the intent was to make it appear an act of racism? Clearly the intent is a critical element in the definition.
The assumption continues that this is a manifestation of the racism that students insisted pervades Harvard University. I do not share that view of Harvard University, but protests have increased after the portrait defacement.
First-year law student Michele Hall wrote “This morning at Harvard Law School we woke up to a hate crime.” Rena Karefa-Johnson, head of Harvard Law’s Students for Inclusion said that the incident reveals that the culture of exclusion and racism has been alive and well at Harvard.