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Harvard students led a demonstration in Winthrop House’s dining hall to push for the house’s denaming during dinner on Sunday, citing both John Winthrops’ ties to slavery.
The demonstration comes amid efforts by activists — including those from the Generational African American Students Association and Natives at Harvard College — to collect signatures on a petition for use in an official denaming request through the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
Students are amplifying calls to dename Winthrop almost a year after the release of a long-awaited University report detailing how slavery “powerfully shaped Harvard.” The report identified dozens of Harvard leaders and donors — including the Winthrops — who enslaved people and are memorialized on buildings today.
During the dining hall demonstration, Clyve Lawrence ’25 — who is spearheading the push to dename the house — recounted the histories of the two Winthrops. Both Winthrops, Lawrence said, enslaved people and contributed to institutionalizing race-based slavery in Massachusetts.
“They were not just slaveowners,” said Lawrence, a Crimson Editorial editor. “No, they were instrumental in creating and maintaining and defending the institution of slavery in America.”
“They did this while engaging in a war of extermination against the Native Americans who lived in this area,” Lawrence added.
Organizers Kiersten B. Hash ’25 and Jordan Young ’25 also gave speeches, offering historical context to the Winthrop name’s associations with slavery and urging students to support their cause.
“Join us in advocating for change, sign the petition, and for the wonderful students here, fill out the testimonial no matter what your opinion is on denaming, so that we can learn about your opinion,” Hash said in her speech.
Harvard spokesperson Rachael Dane previously declined to comment on Winthrop denaming efforts by students.
Megan C. Coram ’23 — who witnessed the demonstration — pointed to house name changes that have previously occurred for “more lighthearted purposes,” citing Harvard’s decision to rename North House to Pforzheimer House in 1994 due to the Pforzheimer family’s long-standing funding contributions.
Coram said she hopes that Winthrop is denamed because of the severity of its namesakes’ ties to slavery.
“I had a vague idea that Winthrop was problematic, but I didn’t know to what extent,” Coram said. “A lot of their speeches I thought were really powerful in terms of stating the very clear numbers. This wasn’t like, ‘Oh, they had one household servant.’ It was, ‘These people had multiple slaves, and also did a huge amount of work to promote the institution of slavery,’ which is just incredibly unacceptable.”
After the demonstration in Winthrop dining hall, roughly a dozen students gathered in Boylston Hall’s Ticknor Lounge later on Sunday for a teach-in on denaming, including more in-depth historical information, an outline of the team’s research into the Winthrops, and an overview of the denaming request.
More than 30 involved students are working toward submitting an official denaming request under the FAS’ Process for Denaming Spaces, Programs, or other Entities. The deadline for denaming requests is March 1, 2023, for the 2022-2023 academic year.
“By having a large team, we’re able to pull as many diverse voices in as possible,” GAASA Vice President Ricardo R. Razón IV ’25 said in an interview.
Razon said he feels proud that the petition has engendered discourse about the Winthrops’ ties to slavery, but he asked for more active student involvement to help progress the denaming movement.
“It’s tiring enough to have to be the ones educating others about our history and our culture, so I want the school to step up and give us proposals,” he said.
In an interview following the teach-in, Lawrence said he does not believe a name change would affect Winthrop House’s underlying culture.
“The community can and hopefully will exist without the Winthrop name being involved,” Lawrence said. “I feel like the Winthrop name actually burdens the students who are affected by those actions, and so they’re in a way being harmed by the name.”
Madison R. Webb ’25, the GAASA inclusivity chair, said she hopes others see the project as “one pixel in a mosaic of change” in reckoning with Harvard’s ties to slavery.
“We know that we cannot go back and rewrite the history of our ancestors. But again, we can write a new history,” Webb said. “So what does that look like? Well, it looks like these things that are within our control, that help build a more inclusive community at Harvard, and help call attention to this dark history that Harvard has.”
—Staff writer Jasmine Palma can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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