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Harvard Law School’s shield honors slaveholders. That could be about to change.

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

The shield of Harvard Law School — three bundles of wheat under the word "Veritas," meaning truth — is based on the family crest of the Royalls, slaveholders whose wealth helped establish Harvard.

Amid a bigger debate about what colleges should do about symbols and honors with roots in slavery and white supremacy, a committee of students, faculty, and staff recommended that the law school get rid of it.

The law school's shield was adopted in 1936, and wasn't widely used until the 1960s. But if Harvard Law School wants to have an official symbol, the committee concluded, it should be something that reflects the university and law school's values.

The Harvard Law School shield.

A historian on the committee argued that changing the shield would be taking the easy way out. Instead, it should be put in context as a way to force Harvard to confront its history, wrote Annette Gordon-Reed, a professor at Harvard who is best known for her research on Thomas Jefferson and slavery.

"For many, there is great discomfort — disgust even — at the thought of looking at the Harvard shield and having to think of slavery," Gordon-Reed wrote. "Of course, I think differently about this: people should have think about slavery when they think of the Harvard shield; but, from now on, with a narrative that emphasizes the enslaved, not the Royall family."

The two opposing suggestions — get rid of the shield, or shine an even brighter light on it — are at the heart of the debate over symbols of slavery and racism on college campuses.

This disagreement is at the heart of the debate about what to do about symbols of slavery

The history of many prestigious colleges is intertwined with the history of slavery in America. And the lingering symbolic honors for slaveholders and defenders of slavery have come in for scrutiny, particularly as black students argue that they are a constant reminder of white supremacy in colleges' pasts.

  • Harvard stopped using the term "house master" and began using "faculty dean" to describe the professors who administer its residences, because "master," a term imported from the United Kingdom, carried connotations of slavery.
  • The international #RhodesMustFall movement is trying to remove statues and other honors for Cecil Rhodes, the wealthy British magnate, imperialist, and white supremacist known as the "father of apartheid" for governing South Africa when it was a British colony. The movement started at the University of Cape Town and spread to the UK's Oxford University.
  • Yale is debating renaming Calhoun College, named after John C. Calhoun, a leading defender of slavery who once referred to it as a "positive good."
  • Students at Princeton want the university to stop honoring President Woodrow Wilson, who resegregated the federal government and defended the Ku Klux Klan.

There are typically three responses to these concerns. The first is outright dismissal: the argument that historical figures shouldn't be judged by today's standards of anti-racism, although Rhodes, Calhoun, and Wilson were racist even by the standards of their time.

The Harvard committee pushed back against that idea. "We are not judging Isaac Royall, a man of the eighteenth century, by standards of the twenty-first century," the committee wrote. "Instead, we are asking whether an institution in the twenty-first century should be represented by a man of the eighteenth century whose only legacy was his money."

But the other two options are part of a more substantive debate. One course of action is to get rid of buildings and statues and crests named after slaveholders and white supremacists, because honoring those people has no place at a modern university. That's the course of action the Harvard committee recommended.

The other is to leave some of these markers in place to ensure that everyone is aware of the role that slavery and white supremacy played in colleges' past. And that means acknowledging double wrongdoing: not just that the people colleges honored had serious flaws, but that colleges, too, were flawed by choosing to honor them in the first place.