A bicyclist walks by Langdell Hall on the campus of the Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Mass. (Charles Krupa/AP)

A committee at Harvard Law School has recommended that the shield that has long been used as a symbol should be retired, because it is the family crest of a slaveholder and does not reflect the values of the school.

The shield is a powerful symbol: For decades, it has represented one of the world’s most prestigious institutions, and for many alumni, their pride in the school and their accomplishments.

But it has come to represent, for some, money earned from slavery and cruelty.

The shield of the Harvard Law School The shield of the Harvard Law School

The decision rests with the Harvard Corporation, but Martha Minow, the Morgan and Helen Chu Dean and Professor of Law, endorsed the committee’s recommendation and said the school’s bicentennial in 2017 might provide a good opportunity to choose a new symbol.

The shield was designed in the 1930s based on the family crest of Isaac Royall Jr., the man whose bequest endowed Harvard’s first law professorship. The connection has been discussed in recent years, since a professor unearthed the family’s history while writing a book about the school. But a group of law students brought urgency to the issue this fall with demands that the shield be changed.

Their efforts echoed protests at universities worldwide over historical statues and symbols decried as racist. From Princeton to the University of Mississippi to Yale, students have demanded long-held traditions be changed, redefining the legacy of benefactors such as President Woodrow Wilson and John C. Calhoun and rejecting banners and titles such as the Confederate flag and “masters” of houses because of their connotation of slavery

The demonstrations gained intensity along with national protests over many other racial issues this past year. But many continued to argue against changing traditions, some because they saw it as empty political correctness, others because they worried it would amount to erasing history.

Law students began a group called “Royall Must Fall” in part as a way to support students in Cape Town and London who were calling for the removal of a statue of British colonialist Cecil Rhodes, and to work to change the symbols on their own campus. The shield has not always been prominent, but now it’s all over, on buildings and doormats and letterheads.

“At a place like Harvard Law School at least, I think it’s nonsense that we can’t find something better,” third-year law student Alexander J. Clayborne said in an interview with The Washington Post in November.

A student group called Reclaim Harvard Law has been protesting this winter, meeting with the dean and, in mid-February, occupying a fireside lounge and demanding that the lounge be renamed Belinda Hall in honor of Belinda Royall “who, in 1783, at 63 years old, petitioned the Commonwealth of Massachusetts asserting her right to compensation for her years of enslavement.” Belinda was enslaved by the Royall family.

Students with Reclaim Harvard Law did not immediately return requests for comment Friday.

The committee’s recommendation was first reported in the Harvard Crimson, which noted that a Harvard Law Record straw poll found 55 percent of the more than 500 respondents supported changing the shield, while 31 percent preferred to keep the shield and acknowledge its history.

More than a thousand people contacted the committee with their opinions, which did not fall along predictable lines such as age, race, or political leanings, said Bruce H. Mann, the chair of the committee and Carl F. Schipper Jr. Professor of Law.

The conversations they had were extraordinary, he said.

Many older African American alumni were deeply attached to the shield, not knowing its history, the report noted, “as a proud, even defiant, symbol of their accomplishment at a time when the larger world often refused to recognize their merit.”

Some felt removing it would be an erasure.

Some, including current students, are deeply offended by it.

“Too many people now couldn’t get past the fact that their official institutional symbol was that of a slaveholder,” Mann said.

The committee’s recommendation to drop the shield is not in any way to erase the past, he said — to the contrary. “It’s an attempt to engage the past more effectively and use it as a spur to do better.”

The committee wrote, “it is important to make clear that we are not judging Isaac Royall, a man of the 18th century, by standards of the 21st century. Instead, we are asking whether an institution in the 21st century should be represented by a man of the 18th century whose only legacy was his money.”

The report gave a history of the Royall family, and addressed an issue some have raised — whether they were guilty of particular cruelty.

“Isaac Royall Sr. (1677-1739) owned a sugar plantation on the island of Antigua and farms in
Massachusetts, all of which were worked by enslaved persons he bought, sold, owned, and transferred from one location to another.

“Isaac Royall Jr. (1719-1781) inherited these estates upon his father’s death in 1739 and owned them until his death in 1781. There have been present claims of Isaac Royall Sr.’s particular brutality and historical reports of Isaac Royall Jr.’s supposed kindness as a master, but they are beside the point.

“Every modern historian who has studied the institution of slavery agrees that slavery in the Americas was inherently brutal, violent, oppressive, and dehumanizing. Its evil and immorality are neither magnified nor diminished by individual instances of exceptional brutality or kindness. …”

However, they wrote, it was important to correct some misconceptions that had inflamed discussion.

 “Some people at the law school have read a recent, brief account of the Royalls and the punishments meted out to suppress the planned slave revolt … on Antigua in 1736 as implying that one or both Royalls were primarily responsible for the executions of 88 enslaved persons by gibbeting, burning at the stake, or being broken on the wheel.

“This is mistaken.

“Putting aside the fact that ‘our’ Isaac Royall–Junior–was 17 at the time and that it was his father who owned the slaves, there is no evidence of the role – whether prominent or otherwise – that either Isaac Royall played in suppressing the revolt, nor is there any evidence that would let us determine whether either one was any more or less brutal than his fellow slave-owners on Antigua, although historians have long recognized that conditions of slavery in the Caribbean were markedly harsher than they were in the mainland colonies.”

The father moved to Massachusetts after that revolt, and his son inherited both the sugar plantation on Antigua and farms in Massachusetts that were tended by enslaved people throughout his life.

The committee’s decision was not unanimous. In “A Different View,” Annette Gordon-Reed, a professor and alumna wrote, in part, “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.”

Annie Rittgers, a law student, joined her view.

In recent years, the dean has held receptions for groups of incoming law students at the law library, pointing out various artifacts, Mann said, such as “Oliver Wendell Holmes’s lunch pail that his servant brought to him every day at the Supreme Court, Roscoe Pound’s circular desk. Then she points to a portrait on the wall of Isaac Royall and his family.” She explains his gift, and that his home, now a museum, is just a few minutes away.

Minow wrote, in her letter to the Harvard Corporation, of what she tells the students. “I observe that the money came from the work of individuals enslaved on his family’s plantation in Antigua, and that while Harvard University at that time acted legally in accepting the gift, it is crucial that we never confine ourselves to solely what is currently lawful, for the great evil of slavery happened within the confines of the law.

“That is why HLS does not simply teach what the law is, but engages in critiques of the law, constant reminders to test what we do in service to our aspirations for virtue and justice.”

She endorsed the committee’s recommendation to retire the shield. “There are complex issues involved in preserving the histories of places and institutions with ties to past injustices, but several elements make retiring the shield less controverted than some other issues about names, symbols, and the past.

“First, the shield is a symbol whose primary purpose is to identify and express who we mean to be.

“Second, it is not an anchoring part of our history: It was created in 1936 for a university celebration, used occasionally for decades and used more commonly only recently, and does not extend back to the origin of the school or even much beyond recent memory.

“Third, there is no donor whose intent would be undermined. …”

Minow also wrote that whatever the corporation decides, the larger conversations about the law school’s values and the importance of strengthening the community will continue, facing the legacy of slavery and ongoing questions of injustice.

“In these most important ways, we remain a work in progress, and that work continues.”

Asked if the committee discussed possible alternative symbols for the law school, Mann said, “No, no, no. One problem at a time.”

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