Harvard Law Drops Racist Seal After Powerful Petition

by
Kate Brown
One powerful petition set into a motion a huge change in a long-criticized and horribly racist tradition that went overlooked at Harvard Law for centuries.

harvard law school

Administrators at Harvard Law School have decided to change the outdated, racist seal that many have taken to social media to criticize.

The seal depicts the crest of an 18th-century slaveholder in Colonial America named Isaac Royall, Jr. Royall left some of his land to Harvard for them to set up the college, which then became the land Harvard Law was built on in 1817.

The majority of Royall’s wealth came from rum and sugar, which meant that they used a lot of slaves. Sugar plantations had some of the most notoriously horrid working conditions, with death rates so high that the labor force had to be renewed every decade.

This change was decided after a petition, signed by professors and students alike, generated a noticeable amount of signatures.

“As you know, Isaac Royall, Jr. and his family were slavers,” the petition reads. “Further, they were responsible for the brutal torture and murder of 88 enslaved persons in Antigua in the mid-1730s.”

The gruesome torture tactics and murders are then outlined, and a powerful point is made: “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.”

It continues: 

“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.”

The petition must have struck a nerve with the administration, because it didn’t take long for them to turn around with the okay to change the seal—hopefully in time for the 2017 bicentennial.

It just goes to show the power that professors and students can enact with the right set of words!

Banner Image Credit: Richard Howe/Flickr

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