I haven’t covered this before, but there was a movement at Harvard Law School to remove three sheaths of wheat from its shield, because the sheaths of wheat represent the family crest of the slave-owning Royall Family.

I’ve probably seen the shield a million times, and never once until this controversy associated it with the Royall Family, much less slavery. They were just sheaths of wheat. Background music at most.

But nothing is non-political anymore. After research revealed the origins of the symbol, a movement arose calling itself Royall Must Fall.

HLS Dean Martha Minow announced the decision in an email today (and an announcement), which reads in part:

Dear Harvard Law School Alumni,

Earlier today, President Faust and Senior Fellow William Lee informed me that the Harvard Corporation will retire the image and trademark of the shield for Harvard Law School adopted in 1936. I share here with you their letter. With this action, the Corporation has accepted the recommendation of the committee chaired by Professor Bruce Mann — a recommendation I endorsed. On behalf of the HLS community, I thank President Faust and the members of the Corporation for their careful review and consideration of the matter.

I am profoundly grateful to Professor Mann and all members of the committee for the exceptionally thoughtful, inclusive, and responsive process they led. I also wish to acknowledge and thank the students who were the first to advocate retiring the shield because of its ties to slavery. I appreciate deeply the contributions from so many members of our community — in total more than a thousand staff, students, faculty and alumni — who shared their differing views while united in their devotion to Harvard Law School.

This decision was the politically easy decision on campus, and was nearly unanimous.

There was an incident in the middle of this debate in which the wall photos of minority professors were covered with a piece of black tape. No one has been caught, and there have been accusations it was a hoax meant to put pressure on the administration to drop the Royall family connection.

A Petition circulated argued:

OPEN LETTER FROM THE COMMUNITY OF HARVARD LAW SCHOOL

Dear Dean Minow,

Over the past few weeks, students and student organizations have come together to speak out against the continued use of the Royall family seal as the crest of Harvard Law School.

As you know, Isaac Royall, Jr. and his family were slavers. Further, they were responsible for the brutal torture and murder of 88 enslaved persons in Antigua in the mid-1730s. Seventy-seven enslaved people were burned alive, six were hanged, and five were broken on the wheel—a torture device whereby people’s bones were crushed until they bled to death. The bodies were then put on display to remind the enslaved people of Antigua of the supremacy of the Royall family and other slavers.

In Massachusetts, the Royalls possessed more enslaved people than any other family in the state. Isaac Royall, Jr. bequeathed part of his estate to Harvard to found the first professorship of law. Thus, Harvard Law School was founded on the exploited labor, broken bones, and ashes of enslaved human beings. The law school adopted the Royall family coat of arms as its crest in 1936 as part of a fundraising campaign. The law school existed without this crest for almost 120 years, and has only borne this symbol of racial atrocities for the past 79 years.

Physical symbols are an expression of who we are and what we value as a community. From the portraits of professors on the second floor of Wasserstein, to the paintings in the library, to the current composition of the faculty, the law school is filled with visual reminders that this school was created by, and for, white men. The most ubiquitous of these symbols, the seal—which adorns all of our buildings, apparel, stationery, and diplomas—honors a slaver and murderer.

Thus, we write to demand the removal of the Royall family crest as the official seal of Harvard Law School. Replacing the seal would not erase the brutal history of the slave trade. Instead, it would appropriately acknowledge the dark legacy of racism that is presently hidden in plain sight. Many people see no clear connection between the slave trade and the present. That is how structural racism becomes entrenched; forgetfulness and indifference are tools of oppression. The refusal of our society to remedy past discrimination has resulted in enduring racial disparities in nearly every quality-of-life metric in the United States.

We cannot stop working toward the eradication of structural racism until every member of our society is treated with equal worth and dignity. Royall Must Fall.

Respectfully,
__________

UPDATE FROM ROYALL MUST FALL

Dear Dean Minow,

The defacement of the portraits of black professors on the morning of Thursday, November 19 was a racist attack against our black professors and the values that we aspire to at Harvard Law School. It reminded us once again that racism is ever-present in our school and society. The brutal history of the slave trade is not a thing of the past—it lives on in the present.

As a community, we have a duty to confront systemic racism. We call on Harvard Law School to change its crest as a promise to students, alumni, staff, and faculty that we are all committed to confronting and remedying the racism that pervades our society. The letter above is a call to action to remove the coat of arms of Isaac Royall, Jr. from the crest of Harvard Law School as a first step toward broader reforms.

Respectfully,

Royall Must Fall

Dean Minow in her email also provided a link to a dissenting view from HLS Professor Annette Gordon-Reed, which takes a much more intellectually honest approach. Annette is a historian of slavery, having written award winning books about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings, among others. She also was the first black woman elected to the Harvard Law Review. (Annette was my classmate and first-year floormate; I consider her a friend even though we communicate infrequently.)

Here is an excerpt from her “Different View” (pdf):

I write to express a different view about whether the Law School should change its shield, mindful of the heartfelt sentiments expressed on the other side and cognizant that mine is the minority view…. Maintaining the current shield, and tying it to a historically sound interpretive narrative about it, would be the most honest and forthright way to insure that the true story of our origins, and connection to the people whom we should see as our progenitors (the enslaved people at Royall’s plantations, not Isaac Royall), is not lost.

Why do I think the current shield can—and should—be made to carry forward the story of, and our connection to, those enslaved at the Royall Plantation? For nearly its entire existence, the shield has sent no singular public message or had any function besides announcing the “arrival” of the Harvard Law School, generally viewed positively as one of the premier educational institutions in the world. Therefore, the shield is not, as I have heard it said in formal conversations about this issue and in informal ones, in any way akin to the Confederate flag or the Nazi flag. Individuals can say they feel it is, but if they do they ought to think seriously about, and associate themselves with, the problematic implications of that position….

The shield, it should be added, contains no physical representation of Royall, which would be an unambiguous celebration of the man himself. It is, thus, not like the statue of Cecil Rhodes that has roiled Oriel College, Oxford and sparked the movement copied here at HLS. As lawyers, we are trained to distinguish situations—to notice how this particular thing is not like that other particular thing—and to find the reasoning about them that should flow from those differences. We can apply that here.

Until Dan Coquillette’s excellent work on the history of HLS, most people did not know of the connection between the Royalls, the sheaves, and the Law School. Since the shield’s adoption in the 1930s, any HLS graduates who have paid attention to the shield (and I am one) have been forced, by the obscurity of the shield’s origins, to make their own internal meaning of the image. It has carried no one specific and dominant association. This is nothing like the situation with the more famous symbols mentioned above….

Thanks to historians, we have “new knowledge” that we are joined in history to a group of people entrapped in the tragedy of the Atlantic slave trade. This also joins us to the larger American story of slavery. We should take this knowledge and run with it, not away from it.

[Note to all the nitpickers — I use “sheaths” instead of “sheaves” because that seems to the more common usage for this shield discussion, including in the official announcement.]