Recognizing History

Symbols should spark conversation, not historical revision

This summer, the nation watched in anticipation as the South Carolina legislature voted to remove the Confederate battle flag from its State House. Nearly four months later, another symbol is being challenged, now at at this University. The Harvard Law School’s seal, derived from the coat of arms of the family of Isaac Royall Jr., a slaveholder, has come under fire from a new student group at the Law School called “Royall Must Fall.” Members of this group argue that the seal must be changed because of the history of slavery it represents. Despite our vigorous support of ending the use of the Confederate battle flag in all instances, we see efforts to change the seal as ultimately misguided.

Making distinctions between which symbols to keep and which to remove is difficult; our opposition to “Royall Must Fall” is not meant as a broad statement that applies generally to all symbols and emblems. When we look at the Confederate flag, we unequivocally see a symbol of hate—it’s the visual representation of a nation whose very existence was predicated upon the idea of preserving slavery and white superiority. When we see the three bushels of wheat that make up the Law School’s seal, we do not see the same hateful legacy.

It is undoubtedly crucial to reflect upon history in order to realize how far society has come since then. Royall’s donation established an institution that now educates students of all races, creeds, and genders in the practice of law that now protects all Americans. When viewed from this perspective, the transformation within the institution is absolutely stunning. The conversation generated by the “Royall Must Fall” movement and its arguments is crucial to continuing this progress.

Continually changing symbols, however, is unnecessary. We live in a society that has become more progressive over time; in retrospect, many historical figures acted in ways we now find repulsive. George Washington himself was a slaveholder from the age of eleven and Martin Luther King Jr. once wrote to a boy who “[felt] about boys the way I ought to feel about girls” assuring him he was “on the right road toward a solution” since he recognized that his “culturally acquired” homosexuality was wrong. Yet there have been no movements to rename Washington, D.C. because its namesake was a slaveholder or to stop memorializing King because of his homophobic views. The examples of these two men shows just how pervasive this issue is: As our society evolves, changing views show the ways in which even our most beloved national heroes have deep flaws. Recognizing these flaws does not necessitate revising history to remove them entirely; rather, it requires a full understanding of the past and a shared commitment by all, both across the country and at Harvard, to move toward a more inclusive future.

The top of the Law School’s seal, like all other seals at Harvard, bears the word veritas—the Latin word for truth. The current seal presents a unique opportunity to reconcile the truth of the atrocities of the past with the Law School’s ongoing fight for justice and equality. Changing the seal takes us further away from recognizing history, a direction we cannot afford to go. Harvard must keep the current seal, but educate community members on its complicated history, never forgetting the dark past it hearkens.

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