In the News: Harvard Law School’s Slavery Past

Last Friday, the dean of Harvard Law School, Martha Minow, recommended changing the school’s official shield to remove the crest of the Royall family because Isaac Royall, a man who provided the land for the school and thereby helped the school’s establishment, had owned slaves. The dean is acting on the recommendation of a committee set up to address the issue, but the committee has very likely been acting in response to the Reclaim Harvard Law students who have been organising protests and occupying a student centre.

The removal has led to a bit of media coverage, including articles and interviews by The New York Times and NPR, and some oppositional viewpoints, such as by law professor Annette Gordon-Reed. The question is, should the crest be removed?

I can understand why Harvard wants to take action. They are under pressure from student protesters. They’ve experienced race-based vandalism, including the vandalism of images of African American professors, this school year. Charges of institutional racism have also led to the recent removal of the term ‘House Master,’ even though the use of the term in this particular case, specifically in Ivy League Schools in America, appears to have come from the European term for teacher centuries ago. And the family crest is directly related to slavery. It is a reminder that the very foundations of the school have been built on land that was the profit of slave labour.

But I side with Gordon-Reed and her supporters, in that I believe that the shield and crest should remain. By keeping the crest and providing appropriate historic context, the shield as it is can serve as a reminder of the horrific institution that slavery was and the financial benefits that were taken from it to invest in America’s infrastructure and institutions. Removing the crest and changing the law school’s shield won’t change Harvard’s historic connections to slavery, but it could become easier to forget or brush over these connections if they are washed away.

As Gordon-Reed points out, the shield itself is not about slavery. It doesn’t support or advocate for slavery or the use of slave labour, it’s not synonymous with slavery, and it probably has a tremendous amount of meaning to generations of Harvard Law School graduates. I think it’s much worse to pretend that slavery didn’t happen or has no relation to the present and remove the image (out of sight, out of mind), than to acknowledge it, allow physical reminders to remain and, perhaps the biggest challenge and one that should be undertaken, try to make amends.

Then again, I’m someone who wrote an entire book to show the world how generations of British politicians defended slave trading, the enslavement of Africans, and the use of colonial slavery.

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