UPDATED: March 4, 2016, at 4:02 p.m.
A committee tasked with re-considering Harvard Law School’s seal in light of its ties to slavery recommended Friday that the Harvard Corporation revoke the emblem’s status as the school’s official symbol.
The seal bears the crest of the former slave-owning Royall family, whose donation helped establish Harvard’s first law professorship in the late 18th century. The committee sent a report to the Corporation—the University’s highest governing body— summarizing the history of the seal and arguments for and against its removal.
Their recommendation was not unanimous; two of the 12 members of the committee argued in a dissenting opinion sent along with the report that the seal should be preserved as an “honest” and conspicuous reminder of the Law School’s connection to “those enslaved at the Royall Plantation.”
However, all committee members agreed that the Law School should publicly acknowledge the symbol’s association with slavery.
The seal, which features three sheaves of wheat overlaying a blue background, has provoked intense dialogue about diversity and inclusion at the Law School since the fall, and has evolved into a rallying point for activists demanding better treatment for minorities there. The student group Royall Must Fall began calling for the seal’s removal in late October, a call that intensified after a racially-charged incident of vandalism later in the semester.
In late November, Law School Dean Martha L. Minow created a committee to re-evaluate the seal and issue a recommendation to the Corporation, which holds final decision-making authority. Minow chose the four faculty members—Janet E. Halley, Tomiko Brown-Nagin, Annette Gordon-Reed, and Samuel Moyn—and two alumni, James E. Bowers and Robert J. Katz, on the committee, appointing Law professor Bruce H. Mann as its chair. The Law School student government selected three students—Rena T. Karefa-Johnson, Mawuse Barker-Vormawor, and Ann C. Rittgers and the staff joint council chose two staff members—Darrick Northington and Yih-Hsien Shen.
The committee’s report ends with one pointed appeal.
“It is that symbol that we request the President and Fellows to release us from,” the committee members wrote.
Controversy surrounding the Law School’s preeminent symbol comes as the school approaches its bicentennial in 2017—opportune timing for an examination of the institution’s history, Minow and committee members wrote.
History played a large part in the committee’s deliberations and ultimate report, as members grappled with a question that has sparked debate at Harvard and around the world: Does removing controversial symbols constitute erasing the past?
At the College, now-Faculty Deans voted unanimously to discard the traditional title “House master,” which some students criticized for the term “master’s” association with slavery. However, University President Drew G. Faust said she opposes further title changes, which she argued would negate historical legacies.
Meanwhile, at Yale, students are petitioning to rename Calhoun College, and Princeton students are pushing the university to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from its school of international affairs. Amherst eliminated its mascot and all references to Lord Jeffery Amherst, who advocated for biological warfare against Native Americans in the 18th century. And the Law School’s Royall Must Fall student activist group was modeled after Rhodes Must Fall, a movement at the University of Cape Town that successfully fought to remove a statue of imperialist and apartheid supporter Cecil Rhodes.
The committee’s arguments in favor of changing the Law School’s seal rest primarily on historical evidence, which constitutes half of their report. In the report, they argue that the negative ramifications of the seal’s use outweigh its historic value.
“There are better ways to engage the past and its legacy in the present than by retaining a symbol that so many members of the community reject,” the report says. “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.”
The report corrects a common misconception that Isaac Royall, Jr.’s donation established the Law School. In fact, Royall, who died in 1781, bequeathed land in his will to Harvard College to help fund either a professorship of law or science. Harvard Law School was not officially founded until 1817.
In addition, the report emphasizes the arbitrary nature of the Royall crest’s adoption as the school’s shield. The shield was designed in 1936 by Pierre de Chaignon la Rose, a seal-drawing aficionado who created emblems for each of Harvard’s graduate schools. The Harvard Corporation officially adopted the shield as the Law School’s seal soon after, and according to the report, there is no evidence the body had knowledge of the crest’s connection to slavery.
“The Law School of the present is very different from the Law School of 1937 for which the family crest of a slave-owner could be chosen as its official symbol without anyone seeing the association with slavery,” the report states.
Isaac Royall Jr.’s “only legacy was his money,” the report argues, a negligible contribution that differentiates him from other prominent slave owners like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who are commemorated for their leadership in American history.
And, the committee wrote, only within the past two decades have people begun to consider the Royall crest’s origins, of which many remained unaware until Law professor Daniel R. Coquillette published research on the subject in 2000.
“The shield did not become seen as a symbol of slavery until very recently,” the report states.
In coming to a final decision, the committee members wrote they communicated with about a thousand Law affiliates, who expressed “significant disagreement” on the seal.
According to the report, divergent opinions do not break down along typical age, political, or racial lines. In a Harvard Law Record straw poll published last week, 54.6 percent of 517 respondents supported changing the seal, while 31.1 percent advocated keeping the seal but acknowledging its ties to slavery.
Division within the committee itself was evident in the dissenting opinion authored by legal history professor Gordon-Reed and supported by second-year student Rittgers. In her dissent, Gordon-Reed called changing the shield “the more conservative option,” urging the Law School to instead be “daring” and retain the shield as a visible reminder of an uncomfortable past. Removing the seal, she wrote, “would be an abdication of our responsibility to the enslaved and a missed opportunity to educate.”
The opinion suggests that the Law School re-brand the shield shrinking the sheaves of wheat and adding the word ‘iustitia,’ which would “[make] explicit our debt to the enslaved and our commitment, in their memory, to the cause of justice.”
Gordon-Reed distinguishes between the seal and symbols commonly associated with racism–such as the Confederate or Nazi flags–writing that for the majority of the seal’s existence, it has represented not slavery but the Law School itself and the accomplishments of its graduates. Additionally, she argues that since the symbol is not an image of Isaac Royall, Jr.–unlike the statue of Rhodes–it can be used to commemorate the enslaved, rather than their owners.
In their report recommending a change, the committee wrote it “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.”
Minow–who wrote that she has informed incoming first-year students about the Royall family’s slave-owning past each year since she became dean–sided with the majority of the committee. In a memo sent to Corporation members Friday with the report and dissent, Minow endorsed the committee’s recommendation.
“We must always face not only the fact of slavery but also its legacies and ongoing questions of injustice within our community and beyond,” she wrote. “We must do so because we are dedicated to intellectual rigor and truth, and because we are willing and able to model reasoned discourse and openness to difference and dissent.”
The implications of a symbol change are particularly relevant now, just after the former House masters changed their title. Reconsidering the seal raises a question of precedent, as some buildings on campus, such as Mather House, bear the name of former slave owners.
In an interview in December, Faust said her role in the seal review process was to guide Minow in considering the ramifications of a potential change. “If the seal were to be changed, would that mean we then would have the logic in place that we’d have to change the name of every single thing on campus?” Faust asked. “Or is the seal different?”
In her memo, Minow highlighted the specificities of the Royall shield’s case–including its 1936 origins and the absence of a living donor laying claim to the crest–that for her create a more compelling argument for change than can be made for other contentious symbols.
“There are complex issues involved in preserving the histories of places and institutions with ties to past injustices, but several elements make retiring the shield less controverted than some other issues about names, symbols, and the past,” she wrote.
The committee report emphasizes that the group focused specifically on the removal of the Law School’s seal, not the durability of other symbols at the University or the question of what symbol should replace the Royall crest.
“Our recommendation is limited to the symbol that officially represents Harvard Law School to the Law School community and to the larger world,” the report says.
The Corporation must agree with their recommendation to remove the shield before any change can go into effect.
“Whatever the Corporation decides about the shield, the larger discussions about our values, our culture, and the importance of strengthening our community will continue, because they must continue,” Minow wrote.