Harvard Law School’s Legacy of Slavery

“Do you recognize that?” Visiting Professor Daniel Coquillette says while pointing at the official seal of Harvard Law School: a shield adorned with three bushels of wheat. “That’s Isaac Royal’s coat of arms. Every time you give a speech before that symbol, you’re giving a speech in front of the arms of a slave owner.”

Isaac Royall and his family made what would amount to $800,000 a year by forcing black people, through torture or the prospect of rape and murder, to tend to his property and produce goods that the Royall family sold for a profit. Much of that profit was later given to Harvard University and was used to start one of the most influential institutions in the world. ”We think he was influenced by the gift in England by Charles Whinert at Oxford to teach law,” Coquillette continued. “That’s what he wanted to do: establish a chair to teach law to undergraduates. He didn’t have the idea, which is the big idea, to found a professional school in the University.”

The nexus between slavery and elite institutions is not unique to Harvard Law School. According to Craig Steven Wilder’s book “Ebony & Ivy,” “the academy never stood apart from American slavery. In fact, it stood beside church and state as the third pillar of a civilization built on bondage.” Dan Coquillette agreed, and went on to discuss the discord surrounding HLS during the Civil War:

“This school has always been divided and conflicted and bares a fairly large responsibility on racial issues. Leaders of the school, [like Professor] Emory Washburn, told the students in 1860 not to discuss slavery. I think that it was really wrong in the 1870s and 1880s to reunite – because the school had so many southern alumni, partially because the school marketed aggressively in the south. There were 600 graduates of the school in the deep south and they were all in positions of leadership after the war. The Mayor of Atlanta, Governor of South Carolina, founder of the University of Texas.”

“The decision at the school basically was that they were going to ignore the reestablishment of segregation and apartheid in the south at the price of getting the southern alumni back into their community,” Coquillette surmised. “The school could’ve had a major moral influence 60 years before the civil rights movement but it didn’t. It simply was corrupt. These historical stories are a part of the fabric of the school. There’s no question that it influences what we are today and it’s better for us to deal with them and confront them.”

Professor Janet Haley, who currently holds the Royall Chair, shared her thoughts as well. “Isaac Royall’s legacy, including as it did the fruit of the labor and the actual sale of slaves, belongs to all of us who benefit from the existence of this institution.” In many ways, the same assessment should be applied to all American citizens who enjoy the fruits and benefits of living in a country begat by the genocide of Native Americans and enslavement of black people. If not for those twin pillars of genocide and enslavement, this country would not exist as it does today. Additionally, without the money left by the Royall family, who tied 71 of their slaves to wooden stakes and burned them alive following a failed revolt, Harvard Law School would not exist as one of the most powerful and respected institutions in the world.

As members of the Harvard Law Family – be we students, alumni, faculty, or staff, Professor Haley’s words should be taken to heart. The legacy of Isaac Royall, who made a fortune from the institution of slavery and all that comes with it – torture, murder, rape, forced labor, and money – is also our own.

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