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Harvard Law School Marks Ties to Slavery in New Plaque

Isaac Royall, Jr., who helped found the school in 1817, was a prosperous slaveholder

(Jon Chase)
smithsonian.com

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the Harvard Law School, which has planned a program of performances, exhibitions and talks celebrating its rich legacy. But on Tuesday, the school launched the observance of its bicentennial by acknowledging a thorny chapter of its history. According to Harvard Law Today, university officials have unveiled a plaque honoring the African-Americans enslaved by one of the school’s early benefactors.

Affixed to a large stone in the Law School’s outdoor plaza, the plaque reads: “In honor of the enslaved whose labor created wealth that made possible the founding of Harvard Law School. May we pursue the highest ideals of law and justice in their memory.”

Harvard Law School was established in 1817 with funds from Isaac Royall, Jr., who had bequeathed a portion of his wealth to the university. Royall was a prosperous slaveholder; he owned a sugar plantation on the island of Antiqua, and held enslaved people on his farms in Massachusetts. Royall’s ties to the slave trade are in fact well documented. As Daniel R. Coquillette and Bruce A. Kimball write in On the Battlefield of Merit, local newspapers in Antigua “repeatedly carried advertisements from Royall, buying and selling horses, cattle, and people.” 

One such advertisement offered “A Likely Negro Wench to dispose of who understands Household Business, and something of Cookery, also Four of said Wench’s Children, viz three Girls and one Boy,” according to Coquillette and Kimball.

Speaking at the dedication of the plaque, Dean of the Law School John F. Manning said that Harvard Law “was founded with wealth generated though the profoundly immoral institution of slavery.”

“We should not hide that fact nor hide from it,” he added, according to Harvard Law Today. “We can and should be proud of many things this school has contributed to the world. But to be true to our complicated history, we must also shine a light on what we are not proud of.” 

There are no names listed on the plaque because the identities of the majority of people Royall enslaved are not known. At the dedication, Harvard Law professor Annette Gordon-Reed said that the memorial’s inscription is “designed to invoke all of their spirits and bring them into our minds and into our memories, in the hopes that it will spur us to try to bring to the world what was not given to them—the law’s protection and regard, and justice,” reports Jamie D. Halper of the Harvard Crimson.

The plaque marks the latest in Harvard’s efforts to acknowledge its ties to slavery. In 2016, a plaque honoring four enslaved people who worked at the university was affixed to the Wadsworth House, where the school’s Colonial-era presidents once lived. In March of this year, during a major conference on academia and slavery, Harvard's president, Drew Gilpin Faust, declared that the university had been “directly complicit” in the slave trade.

Harvard has also taken steps to distance itself from the legacy of the Royalls, removing the family’s crest from the Harvard Law School Seal.

The new plaque was deliberately placed in the center of the Law School plaza—a space “where everyone travels,” Dean Manning said during the dedication, according to Harvard Law Today—so that all who pass by will remember the enslaved men and women whose forced labor led to the school’s establishment.

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a journalist based in New York City. Her work has appeared in New York magazine, Flavorwire, and Women in the World, a property of The New York Times.

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