Students at Harvard Law School are calling for a change to the school’s seal, which incorporates the family crest of HLS benefactor Isaac Royall, one of the biggest slaveholders in colonial greater Boston. I’ve often heard people react protectively towards the historic names on buildings, street signs, and other institutions, saying that you can’t try to erase a piece of history just because you don’t like it. I agree on the surface, but as a historian and museum professional who studies how we create and perpetuate public memory, I cannot ignore the fact that we as a society erase or paint over pieces of history all the time. Just as photographs can never be fully objective because something is always left out of the frame, public memory is a process of constant choices. There’s simply too much history to commemorate all of it all of the time, and what we commemorate changes. What’s important is that we as a society choose wisely when we honor people from the past.
There are many reasons to honor the legacies of people who have done morally questionable or reprehensible things. There are more and less sensitive ways to honor these people and their legacies. I am not suggesting that every slaveholder’s family crest be erased from doors and every slaveholder’s name be erased from street signs. The impulse to remove these names and symbols is a part of a greater movement towards fuller understandings of our own past and cultural narratives that remember all Americans, rather than just the Americans who were at the top of society in their day. We can decide whether to act on that impulse or to make some other change to the way a person’s complicated legacy is memorialized. The issue is too complex to have one answer. These decisions must be made on a case-by-case basis. One way to approach these decisions is to consider why a historical figure is being honored and ask whether they are honored for a reason that is deeply intertwined with their wrongdoing.
If Royall had been a prominent lawyer or legal scholar, or a longtime champion of legal education in the colonies, that would be a compelling reason to keep his family crest on the Law School’s seal. Those reasons to honor Royall would be unrelated to his slaveholding, or loosely related if his legal education was financed by his slaveholding family’s wealth. It would be appropriate, then, to acknowledge and discuss the fact that the Royalls were one of the biggest slaveholding families in the region and to simultaneously continue using the crest. In reality, there is no compelling argument that Isaac Royall, Jr.’s story is worth honoring at Harvard.
Isaac Royall, Jr. was an important man chiefly because of his immense wealth. His father made a fortune in sugar plantations in Antigua before retiring to Medford. The younger Royall inherited this fortune and a network of business contacts at age twenty. Both father nor son often served as the broker for a friend in New England looking to buy an enslaved person, or one in the Caribbean looking to sell. More than sixty enslaved Africans were held at their Medford estate over the Royall family’s years there. I don’t know how many enslaved Africans labored on Isaac senior’s sugar plantations, but I do know that such plantations had high mortality rates, and replacing the enslaved workers by forcibly importing more Africans was commonplace.
The Royall family is recognized by the Harvard Law School because of their money, which was made on the backs of enslaved laborers. Recognizing major donors whose primary connection to an institution is monetary is a time-honored tradition, and I don’t intend to say that it should be ended or reversed. However, whenever someone is honored in a medium that lasts for generations, it is appropriate to examine their legacy closely. The workers who have made the school possible, past and present, should be acknowledged as well as the capitalists who moved the wealth around. By all means, HLS should display a plaque acknowledging the founding donation, but the Royall family’s place of honor on the school’s seal is undeserved.
Tegan Kehoe is a public historian, museum professional, and history and culture writer based in greater Boston. She has volunteered at the Royall House and Slave Quarters historic site in Medford. This letter reflects solely her own views and not those of the Royall House Association.
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- Letter to the Editor: Royall Must Be Recognized, Not Revered - November 5, 2015