Activists Claim Victory After Harvard Drops School Seal With Ties to Slavery

Student protesters from Reclaim Harvard Law School began pressuring the university to remove the symbol last fall.
Harvard Law School ‘Class Day’ podium displaying the school crest. (Photo: NKC Photo/Flickr)
Mar 15, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

A debate at Yale over changing the name of a building named after notorious slavery advocate Sen. John C. Calhoun continues to rage on—as does a similar controversy at Princeton over demands to scrub pro-segregationist President Woodrow Wilson’s name from the public policy school. But after months of student protests over the connection of Harvard Law School’s official seal to a slaveholder, officials at the most prestigious school in the Ivy League seem to be siding against historical figures with problematic legacies.

On Monday officials agreed to strip the offensive seal, which features the word VERITAS, the university motto, and three sheaves of wheat, from the campus.

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“We definitely hope that this move by Harvard Law School will serve as something of a clarion call to other universities across the U.S. to reexamine their history and reevaluate who they want to honor on their campuses,” AJ Clayborne, a third-year student at the graduate school who is a leader of Reclaim Harvard Law, told TakePart.

Giving a boost to other activists would be paying it forward—the movement to remove the seal “was inspired by the students in South Africa who protested the statue of Cecil Rhodes on the campus of the University of Cape Town,” explained Clayborne. Rhodes, a wealthy British businessman who became a politician in South Africa, has become a controversial figure because of his colonialist views.

Reclaim Harvard Law, a coalition of about 100 students and staff members who advocate for increased racial equality on campus, attracted Clayborne last year after protests riled Baltimore in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death in police custody.

“I’m from Maryland. Watching that go down in my backyard was pretty moving to me,” said Clayborne. “That’s really what caused me to realize that I had to do what I could to fight systemic racism where I was, and where I was was Harvard Law School.”

Protests over the seal began last year as part of a larger set of demands, including hiring critical race theorists, and calls for the school to educate the Harvard community around cultural competency.

The shield is based on the family crest of Isaac Royall, a wealthy 18th century slaveholder who left the land the law school was built on and money to Harvard in his will. Along with owning a dozen slaves, Royall helped shut down a slave revolt on the island of Antigua. The law school adopted the seal in 1936 in advance of Harvard’s 300th anniversary.

In a letter released on Monday, Harvard president Drew Faust wrote that the university’s governing body had accepted a committee recommendation to discontinue the seal, adding a call for the creation of a seal that’s “conducive to unifying the Law School community rather than dividing it.”

University leaders, Faust wrote Monday, also agree “with the committee’s unanimous view ‘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.’ ”

As activists at other schools—and even folks asking for the removal of the confederate flag—have found, fighting against tradition is tough.

“I understand why the students are upset, but this is just a fact of the school,” Daniel R. Coquillette, a visiting Harvard professor and expert on the early history of the school, told The Wall Street Journal in November. “If we started renaming things and taking down monuments of people linked to slavery, you would start with Washington...a great institution can tell the truth about itself.”

The seal only being 80 years old may have helped the movement at Harvard because “it’s not like it was there since the founding of the school,” said Clayborne.

“Another powerful aspect of the information battle is that you’re putting your opponents in the position of defending slavery, and they’re just not going to win that argument,” he added.

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The “Royall Must Fall” protest campaign modified the official seal to make its connection to slavery explicit. It was altered to show three black bodies carrying sheaves of wheat on their backs. Over the past few months, dozens of supporters of the movement have posed next to this altered version while holding whiteboards that explain their stance.

Faust wrote that the symbol would be removed from the law school’s website in April, with the rest of the campus to follow. What the new seal will look like has not been announced, but Clayborne was optimistic that university officials would reach out to Reclaim Harvard Law for input.

Clayborne hopes the decision to change the seal is indicative of the administration’s willingness to meet the rest of Reclaim Harvard Law School’s demands.

“We’ve had a couple of pretty unproductive meetings with the administration on these issues thus far,” he said. Clayborne expressed concern that changing the seal could simply be Harvard throwing the activists a bone, “that this will be the end, that they’ll just say, ‘We gave you this—now go away.’ ” To prevent that from happening, said Clayborne, the group plans “to keep the pressure up so we can achieve some more effective, systemic change that can have an immediate impact on the student body.”

Meanwhile, Reclaim Harvard Law continues to meet with student activists from high schools and other college campuses, including Yale. The group is also occupying a building on the campus and seeking to get it renamed after a woman named Belinda, one of Royall’s slaves.

“This particular fight shows that student activism can get stuff done,” said Clayborne.