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The Lowell Legacy Revisited

By A.J. Veneziano
A.J. Veneziano ’23 lives in Canaday Hall.

The iconic bell tower of Lowell House looms over the campus, reminding students every day of the greatness of President Abbott Lawrence Lowell, Class of 1877. In addition to this tower atop the imposing upperclassman house, hundreds of students flood into Lowell Lecture Hall for class and rehearsals. Evidently, the Lowell legacy is eternalized on this campus, regardless of whether students really know who the man himself was. However, Lowell’s actions in the early twentieth century raise questions as to whether he is deserving of the high praise the University bestows upon him to this day.

In 1922, President Lowell recommended to the Board of Overseers a quota system to be placed upon Jewish applicants. In the wake of the mass immigration of the 1920s, Lowell evidently was threatened by the premise of a challenge to the historically Christian, Anglo-Saxon tradition of Harvard. Additionally, he denied housing accommodations to multiple African American students, claiming that “from the beginning, we have not thought it possible to compel men of different races to reside together.”

Recently, it was discovered that President Lowell led a cutthroat crusade against gay students in 1920. In what is now referred to as the “Secret Court of 1920,” Lowell and Acting Dean of the College Chester N. Greenough found 14 men “guilty” of partaking in homosexual acts on campus, including seven College students who were subsequently expelled and asked to leave Cambridge. The main substantial evidence came from the students’ attendance at the lavish parties held by Ernest Roberts in Perkins Hall 28. Following the guilty verdict, two students committed suicide and the rest were left blacklisted from other universities. This year is the one-hundredth anniversary of their expulsions.

One could imagine the level of discomfort for a BGLTQ student, Jewish student, or student of color living in the house of the man who wanted them banished from campus. During the recent renovation, the Faculty Deans of Lowell House, David I. Laibson ’88 and Nina Zipser have encouraged removing a bust of Abbott Lawrence Lowell from the courtyard, and the portraits of Lowell and his wife were removed from the dining hall. The dining hall is a space to foster community among Lowell residents, and the new deans decided that President Lowell did not belong there. While the portrait of Lowell has left, one can find a portrait of his sister, Amy — a notable lesbian, Pulitzer-prize winning poet, hanging there. This seems to be an apt replacement of the openly homophobic president. Furthermore, Lowell House is creating a committee to research Lowell and ponder how to grapple with his complicated legacy today.

So, should Lowell House be renamed in order to cease honoring Abbott Lawrence Lowell? I believe this is not necessary, since the House represents the entire Lowell dynasty, not just the president from the early twentieth century. As one prepares to leave the House, the bust in the courtyard of James Russell Lowell, an important abolitionist poet from the 1800s, can clearly be seen on its pedestal. Furthermore, the portrait of John Lowell, the Massachusetts lawyer who helped draft the 1780 Massachusetts constitution, leading to the abolition of slavery in the state, hangs proudly in the House. To erase their name from the building would be erasing their legacy as well.

However, an interesting conflict remains: The University has not taken the same steps to change Lowell’s legacy as Laibson and Zipser have done as deans. In fact, in the Faculty Room in University Hall, President Lowell is one of few individuals to be memorialized twice — in a painting and a bust. Interestingly enough, the bust was sculpted by John Wilson, the artist responsible for the “Silent Sam” statue that led to immense controversy at the University of North Carolina.

Henceforth, I call upon the Harvard administration to follow in the steps of the Lowell House deans and halt the excessive memorialization of Abbott Lawrence Lowell. Ceasing to memorialize a figure is not the same as erasure; taking this step simply says that this figure is not worthy of our adoration. As a queer student, it frustrates me to know that the Faculty Room has a proud bust of the man who would have abhorred my presence in the Yard. Removing the bust — if not the painting as well — is a necessary start to atoning for a shameful part of this institution’s history. Until then, the Lowell bell tower will continue to chime as time passes while the individuals Lowell destroyed are forgotten.

A.J. Veneziano ’23 lives in Canaday Hall.

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