Photo courtesy Harvard Law/AP.
The Harvard Law shield, originally based on the family crest of Isaac Royall, Jr., a prominent slave owner.

Royall Has Fallen: Harvard Law to Remove Slavery-Based Crest

Sheena Louise Roetman

The Harvard Corporation announced Monday that it will adopt a committee recommendation to discontinue use of the Harvard Law shield, a symbol long associated with slavery.

In an alumni email sent Monday, Dean Martha Minow thanked the recommendation committee, as well as the students, alumni, faculty and staff who first brought attention to the issue.

The Harvard Law shield, adopted by the school in 1936, is modeled after the family crest of Isaac Royall, Jr., the patriarch of a prominent slave-owning family who first endowed a law professorship at the school via his will in 1781.

“Royall derived his wealth from the labor of enslaved persons on a plantation he owned on the island of Antigua and on farms he owned in Massachusetts. The Law School has been aware of this association since about 2000,” states the committee’s recommendation report.

The shield, consisting of three sheaves of wheat, was designed by Pierre de Chaignon la Rose, a Harvard graduate.

“Sheaves of wheat have long been a common element of heraldic devices,” says the report, “signifying such agricultural virtues as abundance, fertility and a good harvest – and are by no means unique to the Royalls. There is no evidence that la Rose or the Corporation were aware of or even thought to ask how the Royall family amassed its fortune.”

This past fall, students came together to form Royall Must Fall, the group of more than 1,000 Harvard Law community members responsible for propelling forward the initiative to remove the shield.

According to the recommendation report, dated March 3, “a racially-charged incident in Wasserstein Hall on November 18” prompted Minow to create the 12-person committee and schedule “community meetings when classes resumed for the spring semester.”

Two days after the alleged incident, The Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper, published an editorial calling for the removal of the shield.

“We agree with the committee’s unanimous view,” said the Harvard Corporation in a letter addressed to Minow on Monday, “‘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.’”

Two committee members, Annette Gordon-Reed, a faculty member, and Annie Rittgers, a student, released a dissenting opinion, stating, “Maintaining the current shield, and tying it to a historically sound interpretive narrative about it, would be the most honest and forthright way to insure that the true story of our origins, and connection to the people whom we should see as our progenitors (the enslaved people at Royall’s plantations, not Isaac Royall), is not lost.”

The Harvard Corporation consists of 13 members, including the two signees of the letter, President Drew Gilpin Faust and Senior Fellow William F. Lee.

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turbojesus's picture
Submitted by turbojesus on
I thought it signified the shield of achilles as that was described to have a city at peace with people reaping the earth. Above that city was a city at war and the black figures of constellations that led them to it. If you think about Colin Powell and the slaves during the civil war, seems like it was a good motif.