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What’s in a name?

Symbols. Seals. Buildings. Names.

May 10, 2016

The Harvard Crimson Staff

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Symbols. Seals. Buildings. Names.

Contentious debate about the history of slavery on college campuses erupted during the past year, provoking universities across the world to examine themselves and the people they honor. At Harvard, those debates have focused on symbols and titles associated, to some degree, with slavery.

Two topics came under particular scrutiny: the title of Harvard’s undergraduate House masters, who led the College’s 12 residential Houses, and the Law School’s official seal, which bore the crest of the former slaveholding Royall family.

Both the title and the seal have since changed.

Last fall, student activists at the Law School lobbied Dean Martha L. Minow to remove the seal—Isaac Royall Jr., who helped endow Harvard’s first law professorship, came from the slaveholding family whose coat of arms was featured on the seal. Ultimately, after months of deliberation, a committee Minow appointed in the wake of students’ demands recommended to the Harvard Corporation that the seal be removed as the school’s official symbol. Why? The seal was not a grounding part of the school’s history, Minow and the committee argued. Isaac Royall Jr. had nothing to do with the founding of the Law School. The decision to use his family’s crest as the school’s seal was arbitrary and worthy of reversal, they argued.

Conversations of the same sentiment occurred at the College, though without the protests. In December, Rakesh Khurana, Dean of Harvard College, announced that the House masters agreed to change their name, arguing that perceived associations with slavery the term “master” invoked could make some uncomfortable; the term House master itself has no known etymological connection to slavery. In February, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Michael D. Smith, revealed their new name: Faculty Dean. Titles send a message, Smith wrote in an email at the time. They “can and should change when such a change serves our mission.”

Though Harvard revoked both the name and the seal, the broader debate is far from over. Some critics have claimed such changes constitute an erasure of the past, that Harvard is not owning up to legacies of slavery at the school. Others argue such changes are merely cosmetic and will do little to improve racial dynamics at Harvard. Now, Harvard is reexamining other sites on campus that may be associated with slavery.


  Titles Send a Message

After little public prompting, Harvard’s House masters chose unanimously to change their title, which some people said was associated with slavery. They accepted a new title, Faculty Dean, several months later. In announcing the new title for the leaders of Harvard’s undergraduate Houses, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Michael D. Smith, acknowledged that he had not yet been shown evidence of any connection between the term House master and slavery, but that “titles send a message.”

  1. November 19, 2015 A group of Latino students met with University President Drew G. Faust to discuss demands to better include students of color on campus. Among those demands was a request to change the title of the College’s House masters.
  2. December 1, 2015 Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana announced that Harvard’s House masters unanimously agreed to change their title.
  3. February 24, 2016 Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael D. Smith announced House masters would, from then onward, be called Faculty Deans.
Rakesh Khurana   Dean, Harvard College
Jazil Waris / Harvard Crimson Photographer
One of the most important things that I've always admired when I think about painful moments in organization’s history, in nation’s history, in society’s history, is this importance of embracing the truth and I have the strong belief that as examples like Nelson Mandela said around the world of truth and reconciliation, that acknowledgment of a painful past and acknowledgment that the work of society is never ending and continuous, and acknowledgment of not being self satisfied is a really important aspect of being able to strengthen one’s self as a community.

Michael D. Rosengarten   Mather House Faculty Dean
Thomas W. Franck / Harvard Crimson Photographer
If everybody wanted to change the name, I wouldn't have a problem with that. We change names all the time. The Holyoke Center is now the Smith Center so names, we just changed our title, I think some of the alumni might not be too happy about that because they associate with the name but I think you have to look at things in the modern context and see how they fit. But this is much more difficult because the roots are so deep and they are so widespread.

Harvey C. Mansfield   Professor of Government
Suproteem K. Sakar / Harvard Crimson Photographer
Well, in this case it’s a show of weakness, I would say. It was a premature, preemptive surrender to a student demand, which didn't really come.

Students should not be in charge of Harvard. They should be heard, but they should not be in charge, and especially a small minority, and especially one that has socially political demands. What we need to avoid is the use of Harvard, Harvard’s name to promote a certain political position, and that’s essentially what was done here.

  A Divisive Seal

After about four months of debate and protest, a Law School removed its seal, which featured the crest of the formerly slaveholding Royall family. In a deeply-researched report recommending the change, the Law School committee Minow convened wrote that the seal did not reflect the values of the school and was arbitrarily chosen a century after the school's founding. Both the committee and Faust, though, asserted the case of the Law School seal was particular. “The Committee recognizes that names from the past associated with now-rejected beliefs and practices litter the present, often in places of apparent honor,” they wrote in their report. “We take no position on what, if anything, should be done with them, other than to note that titles and buildings are individual pieces of an institution and are not presented as the official symbol of the institution itself.”

  1. October 23, 2015 Activists kicked off “Royall Must Fall” campaign advocating for the removal of Harvard Law School’s seal—the coat of arms of a formerly slaveholding family.
  2. November 25,2015 Law School Dean Martha L. Minow appointed a committee to reconsider the school’s seal.
  3. March 4, 2016 The Law School committee Minow convened recommended that the Harvard Corporation revoke the seal’s status as the school’s official symbol.
  4. March 14, 2016 The Harvard Corporation—the University’s highest governing body—officially allowed the Law School to remove and replace its seal.
Drew G. Faust   President, Harvard University
Daphne C. Thompson / Harvard Crimson Photographer
It’s more or less an invented tradition that was designed by a professional heraldist in 1936 for the tercentenary celebrations. It was not much used until very recently when it proved to be a convenient resource when the world of branding hit us all and we all started to think of how to brand ourselves. It's almost an accidental rather than a deeply historical part of the Law School, so that was part of the influence on our thinking.
AJ Clayborne   Member of Royall Must Fall and Reclaim Harvard Law
Annie E. Schugart / Harvard Crimson Photographer
Well we were quite pleased with the committee's decision and we were pleased with the Corporation's decision as well, it’s one step, it’s one fight that we were able to win, and that always deserves a fair amount of celebration, but we ultimately need to shift our focus to the other aspects of institutionalized racism we face here, to try and take that down as well. In a nutshell, we’re pleased but, determined to keep fighting.
Bruce H. Mann   Law Professor and Seal Review Committee Chair
Katherine L. Borrazzo / Harvard Crimson Photographer
The notion of, that by removing the Royall crest, that we’re somehow tumbling down a slippery slope that says we should also rename Washington D.C., or move statues of Thomas Jefferson, those arguments are silly because Washington and Jefferson, yes they’re both slaveholders but they have independent claims on history and we honor them for that, at the same time that we grapple with the complexity posed by their reality as slaveholders, so you have to understand why you associate yourself with a person or a family.
Kurt C. Kreiger   Third Year Law School Student
Sidni M. Frederick / Harvard Crimson Photographer
Kind of a problem I see in the world and especially here on these Ivy League campuses is we’re very focused on ourselves, we get into these school we spend a lot of time writing our personal essays about how we’re going to change the world, make the world a better place, but then we get here, it seems like all these campaigns we have as students are focused kind of inward, on ways that we can make ourselves, improve our own situations—in the case of the seal, make ourselves feel more comfortable.

A lot of people who talk about changing the seal say that when they see it it makes them uncomfortable, when they see it, because that was the seal of a family that owned slaves at one point. And I think that’s a little ironic, and I pointed to this in my piece a little bit, that we're so focused on getting that changed that we fail to realize and fail to kind of, to address, that there's modern slaves around the world today.

I think that we can remove all the symbols of slavery in the world—at the end of the day the world is going to have just as many slaves and it’s going to have, be just as awful as it would if we didn't remove these symbols.

Daniel R. Coquillette   Co-author of “On the Battlefield of Merit: Harvard Law School, the First Century”
Thomas W. Franck / Harvard Crimson Photographer
I think on the one hand that as Annette Gordon-Reed has said, you don’t change the history of the school by taking the seal away... There's slave money in the founding of the original chair in the school. The Antiguans know this and the Antiguans are very much aware of it. On the other hand, if it’s a little bit like being in a classroom with a Confederate flag. At some point at which the students’ sensitivities are really going to be exacerbated every day. You see this symbol every day: it’s on all the podiums, it's on the rugs, it’s on the stationary, it’s on the coursebooks.The way I’ve come out is to say if we’re going to do this—and we are going to do it—we better pay a lot of attention to the underlying issues and I think the best way to start is by reaching out to the people of Antigua and recognizing the contribution that they made.

Though both the House master title and the Law School seal changed this spring, the debate about names and symbols persists. Some have wondered about other sites on campus, like Mather House, named for a former Harvard president who was a slaveholder. It seems like a slippery slope, some say, or, perhaps, a refusal to come to terms with the Harvard of the past, which slaves helped build. But Faust defends the decisions to change these names and symbols, calling on Harvard to remember its past, to memorialize and honor the lives of the slaves of Harvard’s history.

In early April, Faust dedicated a small plaque on Wadsworth House, a yellow building named after a former Harvard president, to four slaves who lived and worked on Harvard’s campus: Titus, Venus, Bilhah, and Juba.

Drew G. Faust   President, Harvard University
Daphne C. Thompson / Harvard Crimson Photographer
One of the issues that we’ve been talking about is what history do we erase, what history ought to be removed and do we not want to have so central in our minds. I wanted to also look at the other side of this, which is what history haven’t we seen and that we should confront and that we’ve either ignored or hidden or denied, and how do we really grapple with our history in a way that fully takes it into account.

It’s not just anonymous individuals, we actually can think of them as particular human beings who had names, who were enslaved, and who did work in a way that supported Harvard and enabled its growth. We need to remember that. And I thought that both underscoring them as individuals and their contribution and underscoring the presence of the institution of slavery was a very important thing to, and that the plaque at Wadsworth House could begin to do that.

Rakesh Khurana   Dean, Harvard College
Jazil Waris / Harvard Crimson Photographer
Some of the most powerful events that I've been to in many ways in the recent past has been first of all the changing portraiture to see new portraits go up. For example, in Annenberg, we have the portrait of the first Wampanoag Native American who was admitted to Harvard, Cheeshahteaumuck, Caleb, and to me to see that portrait alongside the others is an important message. I think it sends something that in fact does show that the importance again of the past and engaging with the past, inquiring about the past, interrogating the past, brings things like that to happen.

What’s in a name?


Meg P. Bernhard, Jalin P. Cunningham, Noah J. Delwiche, Andrew M. Duehren, Thomas W. Franck, Sidni M. Frederick, Ivan B. K. Levingston, Pradeep Niroula, Claire E. Parker, Ignacio Sabate, Luca F. Schroeder, Daphne C. Thompson

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