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​Respect the Past: Remove the Royall Seal

By Jonathan Hiles

If you didn’t known that HLS had a seal, much less one honoring a vicious slaveholder, and reacted by thinking, “That’s messed up, why don’t we change that?” (or words to that effect), then we come from common ground. It has taken me some reflection, aided by the fiery reasoning of Royall Must Fall, to realize this issue’s importance.

The omnipresence of racial hierarchy is such that its signs are rarely noticed or rebuked. This has long been the case with the HLS seal. While such neglect is troublesome, it has also meant that the racial subtext of the Royall seal is not an accurate reflection of HLS. However, it would become much more of one if, in spite of the pain and protests it causes, HLS still clung to this valueless symbol.

Given that Royall is less a crucial donor than a unique one (the first), there is no good reason to honor him. Brutal racial subjugation is a serious taint, no matter the era, and one proportional to its share in a person’s life. The wealth that lends Royall any significance came almost entirely from the toil and blood of slaves. We know that he owned the most people in Massachusetts, had dozens tortured and executed in Antigua, and that, more likely than not, “the half has never been told.” Against this history is a family mascot that reinforces pre-Revolutionary notions of aristocracy. The only possible basis for Royallism is traditionalism.

While some have defended such orthodoxy on the grounds that "a great institution can tell the truth about itself," members of Royall Must Fall also wish to increase awareness of the tradition embodied in our seal. But they realize that three cartoonish sheaves of wheat are less an educative reminder of Harvard’s racist past than a sign of its racist present. Racially tinged markers seldom spread awareness. After all, surprisingly few HLS students know about the (in)famous Roger Taney portrait in the Reading Room of Langdell, and even fewer appreciate the irony of the figure across from it—pointing blithely, it seems, in secret alliance—HLS alum and President Rutherford Hayes, who ended Reconstruction and accelerated the South’s “Redemption” reign of terror.

The truth is we don’t need the names or insignias of racists to remind us of slavery or Jim Crow. We see it every day in mass incarceration, police shootings, childhood poverty and the $20 bill (just to get the list started). Why add insult and injury by forcing African-American students to attend schools that pay unqualified tribute to virulent white supremacists? That’s not educating people about history. It’s perpetuating a hostile educational environment.

For those with a traditionalist bent, this line of argument may be compelling on a case-by-case basis, but it raises the prospect of a slippery slope. If we change our seal, if Washington renames its Redskins and Princeton its Woodrow Wilson School (a closer but correct call), where does the purge end? As some conservatives have challenged, “Should Washington, DC, named after a slave owner, adopt a new title?” This concern, at once overblown and condescending, mistakenly assumes that raging activists cannot see shades of gray or pick and choose their battles. It also ignores the frequent availability of compromise. Certain symbols and names are less suited for certain honors—like Jefferson-Jackson Day for today’s Democratic Party—than they are for others. Many markers of racist structures and legacies will remain.

If there is a slippery slope, it cuts the other way. For Royallists, where do you draw the line? Was it wrong for South Carolina to remove the Confederate Flag from its State Capitol, or for the University of Texas to move its Jefferson Davis statue from a central pedestal to an historical collection?

The traditionalist resentment of such actions rests partly on the misimpression that they are common, that the pendulum has swung too far the other way. Brown historian Michael Vorenberg, a principal source for the movie “Lincoln,” summarized this well. While a member of a committee that investigated Brown's debt to slavery, Vorenberg heard the repeated complaint, “Why do we always have to talk about slavery?” He responded, “When do we talk about slavery?” Asking this question would give many of us pause, as it has given me. Slavery may often be “the thought behind our thoughts,” but it seldom reaches our lips. Confronting the Royall seal is a chance to speak and act out our conscience.

In doing so, we would do well to remember that, while symbols of history matter greatly, they are trivial compared to concrete injustices, including the fact that roughly 750,000 black men are currently in adult jails or prisons, and that as long as this system remains in place, one in three born today will someday go to prison. This should not detract from Royall Must Fall. But it might inspire us to carry our work beyond elite institutions, to reach the greatest victims of racial oppression.

And yet the debate here at Harvard takes me back to my time teaching in Jackson, Mississippi (yes, through Teach For America). I lived blocks from the James Eastland Courthouse, drove to school on George Wallace Drive and jogged afterward along the Ross Barnett Reservoir, at the last sometimes thinking, “Things will only change so much while there are Ross Barnett Reservoirs.” It will be progress—however belated and slight—if the Royall seal falls. And it will give HLS a rare chance to reflect on its ideals and do more to live by them.


Jonathan Hiles is a third-year student at Harvard Law School.

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