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Harvard Law to remove ‘sheaths of wheat’ symbol from shield due to ties to slave owning family

Harvard Law to remove ‘sheaths of wheat’ symbol from shield due to ties to slave owning family

Running away from, rather than towards, history.

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:


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.



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.


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.]


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Amen, Professor Gordon-Reed! How long before the SJW’s call for her job?

In an asides–forward, backward, and toward are singular words, Professor, : )

here’s hoping that the Royall family, if they are still involved with the school, withdraws any and all funding/donations/endowments etc immediately.

Since ALL law up until “now” can be construed as tainted by “white” this or that and male dominated “whatever”, why learn anything from this “inferior” past. All of history is now gone as a basis for law. A Harvard law degree is useless.

ugottabekiddinme | March 14, 2016 at 4:57 pm

Well, isn’t that precious.

Here’s an idea: since Harvard was founded, as were all the early colonial colleges, as a seminary to train Christian ministers, there should be no more federally funded student loans to pay the annual $60k tuition and $22k housing costs, because separation of church and state.

Let’s let history-based purges bite into the revenue, and see how they like that.

legacyrepublican | March 14, 2016 at 4:58 pm

Truth, Veritas, means warts and all. Deleting the sheaths is a slap in the face to those who seek it and don’t cover it up when it makes them feel uncomfortable.

    On the contrary. We should erase all unpleasant history. There never was any slavery. There. Now y’all have nothing to bitch about. Get to work.

We are in the midst of a revolution. Destroying the history and identity of the culture is part of it.
Somehow I doubt they’ll ever go back to the slave sellers of the past and condemn them, because it isn’t about slavery of old, it’s about the slavery coming.
With luck the alumni will stop donating.
Deliberate attacks on cultural features are a rather common part of war. In 70 A.D., for example, the Romans sacked the second Jewish temple, along with the majority of Jerusalem, an event that helped fuel the Jewish diaspora to Africa, Europe and beyond.

Why are we particularly distressed by this and similar destructive acts when people’s lives in many parts of the region are being destroyed or taken on a daily basis?
Iraqis mourn destruction of ancient Assyrian statues

As well as the purely visceral reaction to the violence of the video, there was a recognition that an even more sinister political element was at work. We were shocked by the wanton destruction of artefacts because material culture is not only about people but also about identity. It connects us to the past and embodies and represents our collective experiences and achievements.

Submissive retreat.

History is being painted over. A couple hundred years from now maybe we’ll have an entirely fictional history that doesn’t ‘trigger’ anyone.

No, the crazy years won’t last much longer.

    healthguyfsu in reply to forksdad. | March 17, 2016 at 10:37 pm

    You’e thinking is a bit too wistful. I find in my daily dealings with these special snowflake college students that they will just fabricate new things to be triggered or anxious about.

    If you remove the already “triggering” faux microaggression crap that currently dominates the mind of the SJW, the next gen SJW 2.0 will just invent more ways to be ridiculously offended. Pretty soon you’re pulmonary respiration will “trigger” them and must be stilled to make them feel safe.

      healthguyfsu in reply to healthguyfsu. | March 17, 2016 at 10:38 pm

      It’s late and I used “you’re” instead of “your”, realizing it as I hit send. I hate that I can’t edit that.


Imagine the fuss if the coat-of-arms had cotton, coffee beans, or sugar cane—you know, the tropical crops Africans were actually imported to harvest—had been on there.

In the colonial period temperate crops like wheat were tended almost exclusively by white Europeans.

It was believed then (and, in fact, was until sometime during the Panama Canal project) that some sort of “miasma” emanating from tropical jungles caused all those dreaded tropical diseases, and that the mortality rate among people born & bred in similar climates would be much lower than among people from temperate climes. Hence the demand for Africans, rather than Europeans, as farm labor. Outside of the areas approximating the tropics, though, that made no sense.

Far be it for me to correct a Professor Of Law, but it’s sheaf or sheaves…

Bringing in the sheaves
Bringing in the sheaves
We shall come rejoicing
Bringing in the sheaves

Our country is truly sliding towards full-blown fascism, Nazi style.

There were slaves in Massachusetts??? I thought only Southerners owned slaves!

Correct me if I’m wrong, but if they remove the sheaves of wheat from the shield, all that would be left is ‘VERITAS’?

Truth? Yeah, right.

Char Char Binks | March 14, 2016 at 6:51 pm

Taking out the sheaves.

“Sheaves;” singular: sheaf.

Well, removing the sheaves from the shield makes the shield now a null set.

Harvard had removed the “Veritas” part years ago.

Well wait a minute, what about the bread in the lunch room? Isn’t that usually wheat too? What does this say about our cuisine? (Not to mention the war-like shield)

My law school ring has a book, scales, and the statement “Justia et Veritas Praevaleant”.

It’s corny and bold, just the way I like it.

Well, they are consistent anyway. This is exactly what campus progressives (i.e. Harvard Law) think about the Constitution too (needs to be removed due to ties to slave owning families).

Bring on Year Zero!

“The idea behind Year Zero is that all culture and traditions within a society must be completely destroyed or discarded and a new revolutionary culture must replace it, starting from scratch. All history of a nation or people before Year Zero is deemed largely irrelevant, as it will ideally be purged and replaced from the ground up.”

    Oh, wait:

    “In Cambodia, so-called New People – teachers, artists, and intellectuals – were especially singled out and executed during the purges accompanying Year Zero.”

    Though some might argue that that’s a feature, not a bug.

I hear they now are demanding that Yale be shut down and plowed into the earth. It seems that in 1874 a person who donated $27 to Yale was friends with another man who knew of a person who had a great grandfather who worked as a deck hand on a ship that once sailed alongside a ship that once carried slaves. Oh the horror! (Sarcasm alert)

Why not? For all intents and purposes, they have already removed the word “Veritas.”

More work to be done. George Washington, the slave owner, his coat of arms is recalled in the red and white stripes of the American flag. I propose that the new American flag be a bleeding snowflake on a field of gray.

    Massinsanity in reply to LTMG. | March 15, 2016 at 3:33 pm

    I am generally inclined to mock this type of PC activity on campus but since the opinions set forth here look to be 100% in lock-step let me offer a different view. Given that the Royall family were not only slave holders but it appears from the limited history I have read also slave traders and further given that the crest was only added in 1936 and does not date to the original donation in 1781 that helped create what became HLS I think the decision to change the seal is a reasonable one. I look at it as acknowledging and correcting a mistake… granted that mistake was made 80 years ago but it was a mistake nonetheless.

    Of course, the downside of this is that it will only embolden thoroughly misguided students like the young woman in the photo to pursue increasingly more irrational changes but that doesn’t change my opinion that this was a good decision.

Orwellington | March 15, 2016 at 2:53 pm

Just finished singing ” … we shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.”

Does no one at Harvard have any spine anymore?

How does changing the crest change the actual history? The fact is that Harvard Law School was founded from donations given by the Royall family. If they truly wanted to make a statement, they would return that original contribution, as well as any and all other contributions from any family associated in any way with slavery, along with compound interest.

I see it as akin to accepting contributions from current day KKK members. If they would not accept such donations today, why on earth would they not return similarly sourced contributions from the past?