“Slave-Owning, Slave-Trading Murderers”: Students Call on Harvard Law School to Address Historical Ties to Slavery

You won’t go far at Harvard Law School without running into the Royalls.

In the Treasure Room of Langdell Library hangs a large portrait of the family of Isaac Royall, Jr. Each year, first-year Harvard Law School students sit together beneath this painting as they enjoy a welcome meal with the Dean. Isaac Royall is a figure intimately associated with the origins of Harvard Law School: in 1779, he donated lands to Harvard College whose sale endowed its first professorship of law. The Royall Professorship of Law is still held by a HLS faculty member, and the Royall family crest, bearing three sheaves of wheat, is currently part of the Harvard Law School crest. But the wealth that created Harvard Law School has a disturbing origin. The Royall family fortune was acquired through slavery: their sugar plantation was worked by slave labor, and they augmented their profits by shipping and selling human beings between Boston and Antigua.

Each year, Dean Martha Minow recites this history to illustrate how stark the contrast can be between what is morally good and what is authorized by the law.

“If you do only what is lawful,” says Dean Minow, “you may still do great evil.”

Now, a student movement known as “Royall Must Fall” is calling on Harvard Law School to remove the insignia of Isaac Royall, Jr. and his family. Drawing inspiration from the South African student movement “Rhodes Must Fall,” which campaigned to remove a statue of British imperialist Cecil Rhodes from the University of Cape Town, the students are asking Harvard Law School to remove the Royall insignia from its official crest.

“The students [at the University of Cape Town] felt that Rhodes did not deserve to be glorified, considering his oppressive policies and racist views,” said Royall Must Fall student representatives Alexander Clayborne ’16 and Mawuse Hor Vormawor ’16. “We believe that the Harvard Crest is inextricably bound up in a history of racial subjugation and deadly deeds, the effects of which continue today.”

Clayborne and Vormawor draw attention to a recently-published work by Professor Daniel Coquillette on the early history of Harvard, On the Battlefield of Merit: Harvard Law School, The First Century, which contains an account of the Royalls’ relation to the suppression of a slave uprising on their Antigua plantation in the wake of a series of natural disasters. In quashing the rebellion, which began after the Royall family chose to provide water to their livestock instead of their slaves, the slaveholding aristocratic government executed seventy-seven individuals, and burned the plantation’s head slave, Hector, at the stake. “We of the Royall Must Fall movement seek to elevate such courageous personages as Hector, rather than the Royall Family,” Clayborne and Vormawor state.

Coquillette, a legal historian and visiting Harvard professor, has said that he understands the impetus behind Royall Must Fall, but does not think that the crest should be changed. “If we started renaming things and taking down monuments of people linked to slavery, you would start with Washington. A great institution can tell the truth about itself.”

Clayborne and Vormawor object to the idea that changing the crest is a repudiation of Harvard’s history, pointing out that the crest was chosen in 1936 specifically to commemorate Isaac Royall, Jr. “Insofar as the school adopted the crest for that reason, the school has expressly implicated itself in the construction of a symbol meant to show lineage and heritage in the Royall family.”

They also do not think that keeping the crest in public view has led to any increased consciousness about Harvard’s historical connection to the slave trade. “Why does it take a student movement for anyone to recall the history behind [the crest]? By allowing the law school crest to remain unquestioned and unchallenged for so long, the law school has been complicit in making the students, faculty, and administration unaware.”

Professor Sven Beckert, Laird Bell Professor of History at Harvard University, believes that there has been a “deafening silence” concerning Harvard’s historical ties to slavery. His website Harvard and Slavery, the end-product of a research project conducted with the help of undergraduates, contains an interactive map of sites around Harvard and Cambridge that are associated with the stories of slaveowners and enslaved people.

“These histories have remained hidden, but they need to be brought into the open. Once we do so, we will see traces of these histories all around us—in the names of buildings, in the names of professorships, and, as the Law School students now have discovered, in some of our symbols,” said Beckert. “We want to confront these histories, and make them known. We want to very publicly identify them. And in some cases, such as this one, it seems to me that we want to change our naming and symbols, because we should take no pride in being associated with people who participated in a crime against humanity.”

For this kind of awareness to become reality, says Beckert, a “more substantial effort to research all parts of this history” is needed. “The Law School, just like the university at large, was in many different ways connected to slavery; Harvard profited from the labor of slaves in the Caribbean and in the American South, Harvard benefitted from the unpaid labor of enslaved workers on its own campus in Cambridge, and Harvard played a role in politically supporting the institution of slavery and ideologically buttressing both slavery and ‘scientific’ racism.”

In a statement to The Record, Dean Minow said that her choice to highlight Royall’s connection to slavery during the 1L orientation was consistent with the school’s mission to “train lawyers to do better.” The law school community, she said, should not shy away from asking hard questions about the Royall legacy and the school crest. “Some of our students have made passionate arguments for changing [the crest]. Others have made thoughtful arguments for keeping some symbols as reminders of where we come from and how far we have come. We should welcome such discussions across our community.”

According to the students behind Royall Must Fall, the best way for Harvard Law School to address its historical association with the Royall family is by deliberately choosing to remove the Royall coat of arms from its current place of honor.

“Our mission to change the Harvard Law School Crest seeks to actually address the fact that the crest was the family symbol of slave owning, slave trading murderers,” said Clayborne and Vormawor. “In confronting this history, we have concluded that such a symbol cannot, should not, and must not represent the law school that has nurtured us.”

They have also expressed hope that “students, faculty, and the administration” will unite behind their cause.

“We would like for this act to be the beginning of a new attitude on campus that learns and accepts the racist history of the school,” said Clayborne and Vormawor, “so that further abuses that continue into the present day, such as a lack of student and faculty diversity and an outdated and oppressive legal pedagogy, might be addressed as well.”


Brianna Rennix

Brianna Rennix is the editor-in-chief of The Record and a member of the Harvard Law School Class of 2018.

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