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Controversy erupted this year over Harvard Law School’s seal, which featured the crest of the once-slaveholding Royall family. But long before the current firestorm, the story of Isaac Royall, Jr. quietly lived on in his former Massachusetts house—now a museum—and his surviving descendants, who caution against forgetting the family's history.
The seal went largely unchallenged until last semester, when a student group called Royall Must Fall began calling loudly for its removal, arguing that its associations with slavery created an inhospitable environment for minorities at the Law School. Their calls provoked intense deliberation in the following months about the seal’s future, ultimately culminating in the Harvard Corporation granting the school permission to remove the crest. The Law School is now physically eradicating all traces of it.
The crest, which consists of three sheaves of wheat set against a blue background, represented the family of Isaac Royall, Jr., a prominent 18th century Massachusetts slaveowner who helped endow the first law professorship at Harvard. The Law School did not adopt the crest as its symbol, however, until the 1930s, and the seal did not gain widespread use until the school intensified branding efforts in the 1990s.
Most Law School alumni and faculty were unaware of the story behind the seal, which did not figure largely into the school’s identity, until legal historian Daniel R. Coquillette published research on the subject in 2000. A committee tasked with reconsidering the seal’s use released a report earlier this month, writing that it is “only recently, because of Professor Coquillette’s research, that Dean Minow began telling incoming students of the association [to slavery].”
A descendant of Isaac Royall, Jr.’s, eight generations later, grew up with the story of his contribution to Harvard, and knew about the crest’s link to her family and its slaves before Coquillette unearthed that information. Sixty-five-year-old global health consultant Julia Royall, who now lives in Seattle, recalled learning her family history as a child. She said that preserving this history was important to her relatives, and said an older cousin who was a historian even wrote articles about the family for a New England publication.
Julia Royall said she did not speak to anyone at the Law School during the process to change the seal, but her personal ties to the school extend beyond her lineage. Her husband Brian G. Kahin ’69 graduated from the Law School in 1976, and—like many students at the time—he did not know the story behind the seal and endowed professorship bearing the family’s name until his wife informed him.
Julia Royall’s ancestral affiliation with the school’s crest did not, however, imbue it with any significant meaning for her. “I’m aware of the shield, but it certainly had no sacred place in my life,” she said.
But she has remained active in preserving her family’s history by other means. For many years, she served on the board of the family’s old estate—the Royall House and Slave Quarters—which the Daughters of the American Revolution converted into a museum at the turn of the 20th century. The family’s slaveholding legacy figures prominently into the museum’s programming; staff give tours of the slave quarters and discuss in length the injustices of slavery.
Royall House and Slave Quarters Co-President Peter Gittleman said that while museum staff closely followed the movement to change the seal at the Law School, the decision to remove it will not affect the museum’s tours, which have long emphasized both the Royalls’ slaveholding background and their connection to the Law School.
“For the past half of the year, people have been saying ‘who knew, who knew’ and we knew!” Gittleman said.
Gittleman strongly believes that removing the seal does not change the Royall story. He worries, however, that institutional memory is short and subsequent generations of Law students could forget the school’s connection to the prominent slaveholding family. The same fear is articulated in a dissenting opinion on the seal change, authored by Law professor Annette Gordon-Reed, that accompanied the committee’s report.
“The fact is it makes no difference to us whether the Royalls’ sheaves of wheat are on the seal or not,” Gittleman said, “But we would love to make sure that every generation of Harvard Law students understands where the Royall money came from.”
Julia Royall reiterated that her family's story must persist, but said she approves of the crest’s removal and the activism surrounding it.
“This stuff is important and near and dear to my heart,” she said, pointing to her work promoting African leadership in Africa and countering racism in the United States.
However, she sees the seal change—as well as similar name changes—as constructive only if their impact transcends symbolism and history and propels substantive progress on larger racial issues.
“I think the impact of the shield is symbolic. The challenge is to make it more than that,” she said. “The challenge is to make it animate the struggle to move forward on leveling the playing field. My hope is people will change, and it will ignite present Law students and faculty with a new bit of fire about doing the right thing.”
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