For 80 years, Harvard Law School has been represented by a shield that features Harvard’s motto, Veritas (“truth”) and three sheaves of wheat. But it turns out that the traditional-looking logo isn’t so innocent: Its design was based on the coat of arms of a slaveholder known for treating his slaves with brutal cruelty. Now, reports Arun Rath for NPR, the Dean of Harvard Law School, Martha Minow, has endorsed changing the school's official shield—but questions about slavery’s legacy on campus remain.
Isaac Royall, whose family coat of arms formed the basis for the school’s current logo, was a slave trader and rum distiller who earned his fortune on the backs of the slaves who ran his sugar plantation in Antigua. After a slave revolt in 1736, Royall participated in the surviving slaves’ torture and abuse, gibbeting several slaves and burning more than 70 at the stake. When he moved to Massachusetts soon after, he became the colony’s biggest slave owner.
When Royall died, his son, Isaac Royall, Jr., inherited many of his father's slaves. His slaves weren’t the only markers of his wealth: Royall, Jr. lived in a mansion and was ostentatious with his money. When war broke out later in the century, Massachusett’s patriots denounced him as a Loyalist and he fled to England, abandoning his slaves to their freedom. When Royall, Jr. died in England, his will stipulated that some of his land be sold to fund either a professorship of “physic and anatomy” or law at Harvard. Harvard chose the latter and its law school was born.
In the 1930s, Harvard decided to adopt different shields for its academic units, and Royall’s family coat of arms was incorporated into the law school’s shield to honor the founding father. But the family’s slaveholding legacy has become a lightning rod in recent years as part of a larger student movement aimed at removing slaveholding legacies from institutes of higher education. Under the name “Royall Must Fall,” student activists began to advocate for what they call the “decolonization of our campus, the symbols, the curriculum and the history of Harvard Law School.”
They seem to have prevailed: On March 4, Dean Martha Minow announced that she would endorse the recommendation from a committee of Harvard Law School faculty, students, alumni and staff assembled in November to revise the school’s shield. “Its association with slavery does not represent the values and aspirations of Harvard Law School...it has become a source of division rather than commonality in our community.” As for “Royall Must Fall?” The group began its announcement of the move on its Facebook page with three capitalized words: “ROYALL IS FALLING.”
It remains to be seen whether slavery’s legacy can be reconciled or contextualized on campuses across the United States. Decisions to do away with beloved icons are often contentious—even the Harvard Law committee decision was split ten to two. But every conversation about how to handle hints of schools' slaveholding pasts comes with a reminder that seemingly simple symbols and institutions—even a law school logo—often carry much weightier legacies.