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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained
The Harvard Law School crest is a glorification of and a memorial to one of the largest and most brutal slave owners in Massachusetts. But Isaac Royall, Jr., was more than simply a slave owner; he was complicit in torture and in a gruesome conflagration wherein 77 black human beings were burned alive. This fact and others were absent from The Crimson’s recent editorial, “Recognizing History”—an erasure of history that shows precisely why the seal must be changed. Now that the Law School has been subject to an act of racism, we feel that it is more important than ever to bring this history to light. As the students of Royall Must Fall, we call on the Law School to confront and address this history, not to sanitize and ignore it.
According to C.S. Manegold’s Ten Hills Farm, among other sources, Isaac Royall’s family owned a sugar plantation in Antigua, one of the most notorious strongholds of the slave trade. In the mid 1730’s, a string of natural disasters, disease outbreaks, and a drought made water scarce on the island. According to Law School professor Daniel R. Coquillette, in Antigua it is said that water was commonly given to the livestock before it was given to the men and women from Africa who were forced to work in the cane fields.
Driven to desperation by starvation and thirst, these brave people made a plan to rebel for their freedom in 1736. The Royall family helped to foil that plan and together with the white, landowning government, they decided to force them into submission. The family and other landowners burned 77 human beings at the stake, including Hector, the Royall family’s head slave. Six people were hanged and five people were broken on the wheel.
The “breaking wheel” is often forgotten in the retelling of this story. It was a medieval torture device used on plantations where human beings were strapped to a wheel as an executioner crushed every bone in their body, starting with the fingers and toes and working inwards. Once this process was complete, the victim was crucified on the wheel until he bled to death, slowly over hours or days. His body would then be put on display until it rotted away, as a symbol to the enslaved people not to question the Royalls and other slave lords.
The Royall family took the money it made in Antigua and moved to Medford, where they became the largest slave owners in Massachusetts. In 1781, Royall Jr. died and part of his estate was bequeathed to Harvard to found a chair in the study of law, physics, or anatomy. Thus his vast family wealth, accumulated by the broken, beaten, bruised and burned backs of black laborers, provided the nest egg for the Law School.
It was also only in 1936—not at the Law School’s inception—that we adopted the Royall family coat of arms as the crest. The Law School made a choice then to celebrate Isaac Royall Jr.’s place in its history, and we can make a choice now to change that elevation to a memorial plaque or portrait in the library of Royall and the enslaved people who actually founded this school. We are not asking our community to forget what the Royalls did.
Changing the seal does not take us further away from history. It shows that we truly understand that history and grasp the deep, immoral significance of racism, slavery, torture, and mass murder. The murder, torture, and exploitation of the slave trade should not be sanitized because it created racial inequality in the present. The continuing oppression of black lives in the United States is a direct result of the brutal history of the slave trade, and something that we have continuously failed to address.
It is appropriate and important that we examine those we glorify on all our symbols. Symbols are an expression of who we are as a community, and who we are today is inextricably linked to our history. Symbols that memorialize people like Royall sanitize our history of slavery. If the Law School does not confront its history, then it is contributing to a continuing culture of subjugation and oppression.
The use of this crest does nothing to enhance diversity and inclusion of minority groups on the Law School campus—a purported goal of this institution. Indeed, to declare that the Law School has made enough progress, to proclaim that the mere admission of minority students is enough, constitutes a failure to recognize the inherent indignity in being obliged to adopt as your own the symbol of a family who might have owned your ancestors. It is yet another manifestation of the failure to recognize that black lives matter.
This important phrase raises a key question: Why worry about a seal when minorities face deadly violence in the streets of our country every day? Because as law students, we see the connection between our history and the laws that justify deadly police violence against black and brown bodies. We recognize the connection between the Law School and the ongoing justification of racial disparities in nearly every quality of life metric in the United States. We see the connection between symbols of oppression and the continuing marginalization of black and brown students.
And finally, we recognize that it is no longer enough to declare allegiance to diversity by merely admitting minorities. In other words, the mere admission of minorities can no longer be called “progress.” Now it is time to start actually including minorities in the governance of our institutions. This means “decolonizing” our institutions of higher education – that is, reforming our physical and intellectual spaces so that they no longer burden minority students with constant reminders of their historical, legal, and ongoing social subjugation. The Royall crest is merely one aspect of this broader justice project in creating an inclusive community. And it is only the beginning.
Royall Must Fall, Hector Must Rise
Alexander Clayborne, J.D. ’16, Sean Cuddihy J.D. ’16, Antuan Johnson J.D. ’16, Marium Khawaja LLM ’16, Brian Klosterboer J.D. ’16, Tess Peacock LLM ’16, and Salomé Viljoen J.D. ’16 are members of Royall Must Fall.
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