Acknowledge what Harvard Law School owes to slaves


Harvard Law School was founded with money amassed through slavery.

This is a fact that HLS does not try to hide. But it is a truth that is not exactly advertised either. If you visit the “Our History” page of the law school’s website, you get a somewhat-whitewashed version of the school’s heritage. More than a third of the 311-word synopsis of HLS history discusses the legacy of Isaac Royall. In 1781, Royall bequeathed the money used to establish Harvard’s first endowed chair in law. And in 1806, Royall’s heirs sold the remainder of his estate to establish the law school itself.

What this account omits entirely is that Isaac Royall was a slaveholder – his donated estate was built from slave labor and the slave trade.

An enduring expression of gratitude to Royall is found in the law school’s shield, which depicts, below the “veritas” motto, three sheaves of wheat on a blue background. The sheaves of wheat are derived from the Royall family coat of arms. And that being so, the HLS heraldry can be fairly said to symbolize a harvest gathered through the labor of slaves.

The current Royall Chair, Janet Halley, published a very thoughtful and wonderfully engaging piece about the Royall legacy in the Spring 2008 issue of the Harvard Blackletter Law Journal. In her essay Halley writes, “The fact that the very location of the roads in Cambridge, the beautiful design of the old houses, the wealth of the region were all determined in the matrix of the mass enslavement of seized Africans and their offspring – the fact that the funds that established the Royall Chair derived, directly and/or indirectly, from the sale of human beings and the appropriation of their labor – these are facts. What does one do about them?”

This is a good question, and a difficult one. I do not pretend to have the answer. Nonetheless, it seems to me that there is one simple issue of fairness that transcends the historical, political, and social complexities: Shouldn’t HLS acknowledge Royall’s slaves as it does all other benefactors?

Surely they are benefactors. We know that the slaves were not paid the wages they were owed for their labor. So, to borrow a concept from remedies, it seems only fair that Royall’s slaves should, in retrospect, be awarded something like a constructive trust on their unremitted earnings. That trust property, having been converted to charitable contribution, leaves a residue of acknowledgement of giving. That acknowledgement is currently possessed, posthumously, by Royall. It seems only equitable to shift that res to the account of the slaves, or at least allow them to share as co-tenants.

I think it follows that, at a minimum, Harvard Law ought to acknowledge the slaves’ contributions in the school website’s historical narrative. Also, given the volume of acknowledgement that Royall continues to receive from Harvard in one form or another, I think some tangible acknowledgment on campus would be in order – a wall-mounted inscription in some prominent place.

Many of the slaves’ names are known. Using the list compiled by the Royall House Association historical society, I imagine the inscription might look something like that shown here:

In grateful acknowledgement of the involuntary contributionsof slaves of the Royall estate for the founding endowment of Harvard Law School

HectorQuacoRuthNanCuffPeter JuneCuffeePeterFortuneCaptainBlack BettyAbbaQuacoeDianaJohnNancyBettyGeorgeSarahJacobJemmyAbbaRobinCobaWalkerNubaTraceTobeyPresentCatoBarronNedHouse PeterRobinQuaminoSmithPhillipTraceSue (Susannah)JontoOld Negro ManSantoGirl 6 Years of AgeOld CookGeorgeAbrahamBetseyNancyCooperHagarJosephMiraPhebePlatoStephyDianaJosephBelindaJosephPrinePriscillaBathshebaNanny

and others whose names are lost.

Eric E. Johnson ’00 is an Assistant Professor of Law at the University of North Dakota