The Harvard Law School seal that is attached to a sign on the Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University is retiring the official shield of its law school after complaints over its ties to an 18th-century slaveholder. (Harvard Law School via AP)

The symbol of Harvard Law School is already changing after the Harvard Corporation voted Monday to accept a committee’s recommendation to remove the shield used for 80 years because it does not reflect the values of the school.

It was a powerful symbolic decision from one of the world’s most elite universities at a time when campuses across the United States and overseas are debating whether historic symbols, statues and names should be removed because of their ties to racism, or whether that would amount to erasing the past.

With the school’s bicentennial in 2017 drawing near, Harvard President Drew Faust and Senior Fellow William F. Lee wrote to the dean, Martha Minow, that it is a good time for the law school to choose a new symbol — one that unites the school rather than dividing it.

“We cannot choose our history but we can choose that for which we stand,” Minow wrote to the campus community. “Above all, we rededicate ourselves to the hard work of eradicating not just symbols of injustice but injustice itself.”

While many alumni wished to keep the shield, a well-known symbol of the powerful and prestigious institution which educated legendary Supreme Court justices and President Obama, a movement spread based on the argument that the image should evoke not pride but shame over the cruelty of slavery.

A group of students challenged the use of the shield this fall because it is based on the family crest of a wealthy slave-owning family. Isaac Royall Jr. endowed Harvard’s first law professorship with a bequest in his will, and in the 1930s, the image with three sheaves of wheat was adopted by the institution.

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

Royall Must Fall, the student group, was initially inspired by the Rhodes Must Fall protests at universities in South Africa and England demanding the removal of statues and other symbols of Cecil Rhodes, a wealthy colonialist whose donations greatly benefited universities but whose racism made him unworthy of honor, they argued.

Royall Must Fall created their own image: Black figures bent under the weight of the sheaves of wheat on the crest, under the familiar VERITAS of Harvard, and held protests along with Reclaim Harvard Law. Students occupied a fireside lounge, demanding that it be renamed Belinda Hall in honor of a woman enslaved by the Royall family. Belinda Royall  “in 1783, at 63 years old, petitioned the Commonwealth of Massachusetts asserting her right to compensation for her years of enslavement.”

“I think it’s a very good step and a very important step,” said Rathna Ramamurthi, a second-year law student and member of Reclaim Harvard Law. “My first reaction, honestly, was just to think about how much there is left to do.” That was the first of their list of demands, she said, which include things such as adding more faculty of color.

“It’s indicative of our commitment to telling a different set of stories going forward,” she said. “Instead of telling the story of someone like Isaac Royall’s role in founding the school, telling the story of somoene like Belinda whose work was more important to the law school in many ways.

“Isaac Royall amassed a lot of  money, but he did it on the backs of slaves like Belinda. We don’t acknowledge that – or the contribution of the people of color. In my mind, that’s really what’s central in the Belinda v. Isaac Royall debate — the competing contributions of those two people and how we attribute success to one or another.”

Earlier this month, a committee which studied the history of the Royall family and the reactions of more than 1,000 alumni, recommended that the shield be changed. (Two members of the group disagreed, and wrote that they should maintain the shield and use it an opportunity to teach about the past.) Minow agreed with the committee’s recommendation and asked the corporation to consider it, noting that it was not a defining part of the school’s history and that it is used as a symbol of the place.

The corporation acted swiftly. In their letter, Faust and Lee wrote that they agreed that “modern institutions must acknowledge their past associations with slavery, not to assign guilt, but to understand the pervasiveness of the legacy of slavery and its continuing impact on the world in which we live,” and that the decision made “on the understanding the School will actively explore other steps to recognize rather than to suppress the realities of its history, mindful of our shared obligation to honor the past not by seeking to erase it, but rather by bringing it to light and learning from it.”

It will take until mid-April to remove the shield from all the signs and doormats and other places where the image is seen now, but the school already deleted it from its social media — and reaction online was quick.

When the school updated its profile picture on Facebook, hundreds of people noted that they liked it.

“I was pleased that the corporation got to the matter as quickly as it did,” said Bruce H. Mann, chair of the committee and Carl F. Schipper Jr. professor of law. “No one ever has any idea when the corporation meets, so when you send off a recommendation to them, you really never know when you might hear back. I think that in this case, the quickness with which they addressed the issue was a measure of how seriously they took all the effort we had put into trying to resolve the matter.”

Mann said that both he and the dean have gotten many expressions of thanks,“and a handful of people who say, ‘How could you?’ – to which I reply and refer them to the report – which explains in very careful detail the how and why we did.”

“I certainly knew, we all knew from the beginning, that no matter what we decided, we were guaranteed to disappoint some large number of people,” he added, “which is why it was important to us to proceed in as open, respectful, principled and reasoned manner as possible.”

James Bowers, a lawyer and class of 1970 alumnus who serves on the Senior Advisory Council of the Harvard Law School Association and was a member of the committee, wrote in an email, “Deciding whether to retire the Harvard Law School shield was a difficult decision. While I am generally against erasing symbols that convey the historical roots of an institution, the history surrounding adoption of the shield made a less compelling case for keeping it. The shield does not date to the beginning of the Law School in 1815; instead it was designed 120 years later in 1936 as an emblem to be used for ceremonial purposes.

“Since the shield is not firmly anchored in the Law School’s past, it becomes a relevant consideration whether the shield is a unifying or divisive force within the greater Law School community. After witnessing a growing divisiveness within the community over use of the shield, and considering the shield’s short vintage, I decided the greater equity lies with preserving harmony within the community. The Law School community can now design a new shield that is more reflective of its current mission and values.”

Here is the full text of the letter the dean sent to the campus community:

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[today.law.harvard.edu]. With this action, the Corporation has accepted the recommendation[today.law.harvard.edu] 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.

As we move ahead, we will actively explore steps to “recognize rather than to suppress the realities of [the shield’s] history, mindful of our shared obligation to honor the past not by seeking to erase it, but rather by bringing it to light and learning from it,” as President Faust and Senior Fellow William Lee have wisely urged us to do.  To that end, the statement[today.law.harvard.edu] by Professor Annette Gordon-Reed, joined by Annie Rittgers, of the committee offers valuable guidance for moving forward.

Removing the shield from the many places it has been used by the School will take some time but the work has begun. The templates of our many webpages will be reconfigured to omit the shield by mid-April, and in the next few days, Dean McCrossan will send the community further information and guidance to help all departments make necessary changes.

The opportunity to consider a new symbol on the threshold of our Bicentennial allows us to engage in a productive and creative focus on expressing the School’s mission and values as we continue to strengthen its dedication to intellectual rigor and truth, to reasoned discourse and diverse views, and to a community marked by mutual respect and inclusiveness. Our constant efforts to marshal talent to serve justice and to advance human freedom and welfare are the best way to symbolize the ideals of Harvard Law School.

We cannot choose our history but we can choose that for which we stand. Above all, we rededicate ourselves to the hard work of eradicating not just symbols of injustice but injustice itself.

Martha Minow
Morgan and Helen Chu Dean and Professor
Harvard Law School