UPDATED: June 10, 2023 at 12:13 p.m.
Harvard sophomore Ricky R. Razon IV ’25 recalls his grandmother living off a highway named after Jefferson Davis, the first and only president of the Confederacy.
“I’m all too familiar with buildings, landmarks being named after slaveowners and people that have played a role in upholding the legacy of slavery,” Razon said. “Coming up north, I thought this was something I did not have to deal with — buildings being named after enslavers and people in positions of power that upheld the legacy of slavery.”
Razon, who is the president of the Generational African American Students Association, wondered if it was “naive” of him to be surprised when he learned that the “sought after” Winthrop House was named after slaveowners.
Razon is not the only student who has taken issue with the names adorning some Harvard buildings. Over the past few years, the Arthur M. Sackler Museum and Building, Winthrop, and Mather House have all been subject to calls for denaming due to the legacies of their namesakes.
For nearly all of Harvard’s history, the University provided no official procedures through which students could request building name changes.
But in 2020, President Lawrence S. Bacow created a committee charged with the creation of procedures under which the University and FAS would consider requests for renaming. In December 2021, the committee released its final report before its dissolution.
Since the guidelines were published, written requests for denaming both Winthrop and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum and Building have been submitted and are currently being reviewed by administrators.
But student activists — who have spent months putting together denaming campaigns — said the new guidelines have come with a veil of uncertainty over Harvard’s timelines and criteria for review. Other undergraduates and alumni expressed concerns that denaming would shift their relationships with the buildings they called home.
For Razon, denaming represents a way to reckon with “a very dark and ugly history.”
“We’re able to bring that to light and hold the institution to the fire in acknowledging its dark past and dark history and uplifting those who Harvard has profited off of,” he said.
In February, GAASA and Natives at Harvard College disseminated a petition calling for the denaming of Winthrop, citing the history of its namesakes, both of whom were named John Winthrop.
The petition has since acquired more than 600 signatures, including those from 45 descendants of the John Winthrops.
The following month, GAASA and NaHC submitted an official denaming request to the FAS, which they also published publicly as a historical and archival report on the Winthrops.
Clyve Lawrence ’25 — who spearheaded the research and drafting of the denaming request — said he believes building names honor “certain figures and values.”
“What we said with this denaming project is that John Winthrop is not a figure that we should commemorate,” said Lawrence, a Crimson Editorial editor.
The Winthrop request comes almost a year after Harvard released its landmark Legacy of Slavery report in April 2022 that detailed how the school participated in, perpetuated, and profited from slavery. Included in the report are details of the Winthrops’ enslavement of Indigenous and African peoples.
The elder John Winthrop served as governor of Massachusetts for 16 years and as a Harvard overseer. But the Winthrop report said he was also “an instrumental leader in The Pequot War,” described as “a brutal, genocidal war of extermination against the Pequots, driving them to near-extinction.”
Winthrop personally enslaved at least seven people and contributed to the creation of the legal code which legalized slavery in Massachusetts, according to the Winthrop report.
The younger John Winthrop, his great-great grandson, served as both a Harvard professor and president. He enslaved two individuals of African descent.
Lawrence said the proposal is based on the idea that “the University should be compelled to change the symbolic and physical remnants of this legacy.”
“It’s a first step that we can say is really reckoning with the legacy of slavery at Harvard,” he said.
Morgan H. Curtis, a descendant of John Winthrop and student at Harvard Divinity School, signed onto the petition to dename Winthrop after studying and researching the Winthrops.
“It feels personal to understand the privileges I was born into are connected to the taking of land and labor from Black and native people,” Curtis said.
Madison R. Webb ’25, a member of the Winthrop report outreach committee, said she believes that for Indigenous and Black students, walking through Winthrop House can be an “emotional experience.”
“It’s just a reminder that the University historically thinks of you as not even a human being worthy of respect, worthy of being alive, and worthy of being treated as an equal,” Webb said.
Harvard spokesperson Jason A. Newton declined to comment on calls to dename Winthrop or student criticisms.
Activists rekindled calls to dename the Arthur M. Sackler Museum and Building this fall, almost five years after an initial protest that demanded the University take down the Sackler name. Students staged a subsequent protest at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum last month.
Members of the Harvard College Overdose Prevention and Education Students oppose the presence of the Sackler name due to the Sackler family’s ties to Purdue Pharma, the pharmaceutical company that created and marketed the highly-addictive opioid OxyContin.
In fall 2022, members of HCOPES disseminated a petition to remove the name from both buildings, which included a poll administered to undergraduate students at the University. Out of 316 respondents, 310 supported the denaming of the Sackler Museum and Building. That October, HCOPES submitted their official denaming request to Harvard administrators.
“For decades, the Sackler family has profited off the sale and deceptive marketing of addictive drugs, most notably OxyContin,” the 23-page report reads.
Arthur M. Sackler died before the release of OxyContin in 1996. Still, HCOPES wrote in the report that they believe he is “far from blameless” in the popularization of opioids due to his work developing “deeply unethical and detrimental” medical marketing strategies.
Regardless of Arthur Sackler’s personal involvement, HCOPES argued that his name should be removed due to its association with his family.
“I think that the Sackler name in this country, and Arthur Sackler’s name as well, is deeply intertwined with the opioid epidemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans,” HCOPES Policy Chair Jay P. Garg ’24 said.
Signatories of the HCOPES petition had the option to provide personal comments about their relationship to the Sackler name. According to a copy of the petition obtained by The Crimson, a number of affiliates described deep discomfort with spending time in or walking by buildings with the Sackler name.
Jillian Sackler, Arthur Sackler’s widow, objected to efforts to remove his name from the museum, noting that he had no involvement in the development of OxyContin or the founding of Purdue Pharma, both of which occurred after his death.
“It would be a travesty of justice if Arthur’s name would be removed,” Jillian Sackler wrote. “Arthur was entirely ethical, unlike his brothers who betrayed him and were responsible for deceptive medical advertising. To lump the three brothers together is stupid and those who persist in saying Arthur was implicated in the opioid crisis are wrong.”
“Arthur’s branch was never accused in the lawsuits,” she added. “We are, however, subject to lies by publicity-seeking ‘activists’ who are devoted to canceling the Sackler name.”
A spokesperson for Purdue Pharma did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Newton declined to comment on the Sackler denaming request.
Denaming requests for FAS buildings are evaluated either through the FAS or the University, or both. The components of requests are outlined by the “Committee to Articulate Principles on Renaming,” the group which Bacow convened in 2020.
President Emerita Drew G. Faust chaired the group, which consisted of 15 other members.
This group aimed to determine circumstances in which names might be removed from Havard buildings due to “past advocacy or support of activities” that affiliates “would today find abhorrent,” according to its final report.
Harvard Economics professor and Lowell House Faculty Dean David I. Laibson ’88, a member of the committee, said the group solicited opinions from stakeholders including students, staff, faculty, alumni, Cambridge residents, and historians throughout the process.
“It was a highly consultative process, and I thought it was a very fruitful set of conversations because people really were listening to one another,” Laibson said.
According to the committee’s final report, denaming requests must determine to what extent the name “creates a harmful environment,” consider the historical evidence and why the name was originally selected, and discern how central the name is to the experience of Harvard affiliates.
Requests must also consider if the namesake’s criticized behavior is “a significant component of that individual’s legacy when viewed in the full context of the namesake’s life” and whether their actions would have been “objectionable in the namesake’s own time.”
Finally, petitioners must discuss whether retaining and contextualizing the name is a better alternative to denaming.
Denaming proposals originally submitted to the FAS will also be reviewed at the University level if they involve a gift agreement or other legal contract.
According to Harvard’s guidelines, if a denaming proposal is not accepted by the review committee, another request for that name cannot be submitted for five years, except if “significant and consequential new information comes to light.”
After submission, the request is first examined for basic validity criteria unrelated to the denaming argument. If the request passes this initial review, it advances to a substantive review, conducted by a committee of faculty, administrators, and students unaffiliated with the request.
The Winthrop petition is currently in the substantive review stage, Lawrence said. Advocates for the Sackler petition have received no updates on the process beyond the fact that the request is under review, according to Garg.
The denaming processes do not set any time frame for how long the review should take.
Some students involved in the creation of denaming proposals criticized the length, uncertainty, and complexity involved with the petition process.
Webb said she respects the “tedious” nature of the process, though she said it shouldn’t take “three years to acknowledge wrongdoing.”
“They’re thinking about stakeholders, and they’re thinking about their endowment and they're thinking about future students, and how this may impact admissions and how it may impact future students who want to live at this university,” Webb said.
Kiersten B. Hash ’25, an organizer of the Winthrop denaming petition, said she feels the administration’s lengthy timeline for reviewing proposals is a “very intentional” method to subdue student activism.
“A lot of the ways that the school quells student organizing is by making things slow-moving,” Hash said. “It’s guaranteeing the same students won’t be here.”
Newton, the Harvard spokesperson, declined to comment on criticisms of the denaming process.
Lawrence cited Stanford’s public list of names under review for denaming as an example of greater clarity in denaming processes.
“There’s a precedent for other colleges for making these types of things public,” Lawrence said.
Not all Harvard students and alumni are unified in the belief that the Winthrop or Sackler names should be removed from campus buildings.
Alma H. Conway ’23 said she supports denaming the Sackler buildings more than Winthrop House, describing allegations against the Sackler family as “a much more current and pressing issue.”
“They still are well off and don’t have to face the consequences of people who are addicted to opioids nowadays,” Conway said. “The slavery issue is awful and I think it will be a scar on America’s record forever, but I’m glad we overcame it and we should look at them with the lens of their time.”
Cindy H. Phan ’24 said she has no qualms with denaming, but she prefers that it is viewed as “a catalyst to a broader conversation that needs to happen.”
But for some Harvard alumni and former Winthrop House residents, like Gerasimos N. “Jerry” Tsandoulas ’61, “Winthrop” carries an intimate meaning associated with his time living in the house that transcends its namesakes’ legacies.
“This initiative will provoke a visceral, not intellectual, negative reaction in most of us whether such reaction is explicitly stated or not, for the name is inextricably tied to our overall experience at Winthrop House and we do not want that experience to be in any way degraded,” Tsandoulas wrote in an emailed statement.
Tijesunimi E. Borode ’24, who did research for the Winthrop petition, said houses can be a “safe haven,” providing all the more reason to pay attention to their namesakes’ historical roots.
“What [it] symbolizes for some is the remembrance that will provoke recollection of atrocities that were done in the past,” Borode said.
Albert Z. “Chig” Lewis Jr. ’70, a former Winthrop resident, wrote that affiliates “must understand the past to improve upon it.”
“I find it exceedingly more interesting to examine the history of a flawed person and try to understand the forces and cultural impacts of their situation than to try to glorify someone in an edifice that bears little connection with the history of the building,” Lewis wrote in an email.
Lawrence said he believes denaming is not “erasing history or rewriting history” but instead “a symbolic step” towards dismantling oppressive systems.
“It is a specific process of contextualization and acknowledgment,” Lawrence said. “It’s a way for us to reckon with a complete picture of somebody’s life, rather than just brushing off, or cherry-picking certain parts of the legacy.”
—Staff writer Natalie K Bandura can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.