Exhibit written and curated by Kara Zelasko


In 1781, Isaac Royall Jr. left approximately 1,000 acres of land to Harvard. This land was sold in order to produce a professorship in law or medicine. This transaction would forever tie Royall’s fortune, accumulated through enslaved people’s labor in Antigua, to the Harvard Law School, which established a law professorship with the endowment in 1815.[i] This relationship was visually acknowledged in 1937 when the Law School formally adopted the Royall crest as their own, displaying three innocuous sheaves of wheat modeled after a bookplate of Isaac Royall. The connection between slavery, the Royalls, and the Harvard Law School has never been intentionally shielded by the Royall House and Slave Quarters or the law school. However, in Spring of 2016 a committee recommended the removal of the crest from the Harvard Law School shield and the seal was officially retired in April 2016.

Royall Family History

The contentious debate surrounding the appropriateness of having a seal and professorship, one of the most prestigious in the nation, tied to a fortune amassed from enslaved persons’ labor deals with themes of identity, interpretation, visibility, and public memory. The Harvard Law School and its student body dealt with these issues through hearings, committees, debates, and newspaper articles. The recommendation to remove the seal was a product of a tense time in the law school, but some have argued this misses the long-term opportunity to openly engage with Harvard’s connection to slavery and the legacy of slavery more broadly.

As mentioned, the fact that the Royalls’ fortune was built on slavery is not new information. Isaac Royall Sr. was involved in the Triangle Trade in Antigua, actively investing in slave voyages, exporting sugar, and manufacturing rum. The Royalls left Antigua for Medford, Massachusetts in 1737 following a string of drought, disease, and a foiled slave revolt that resulted in the family’s overseer, Hector, being burned alive for his actions in the conspiracy. Following Royall Sr.’s death in Medford, Royall Jr. continued to build on the family’s wealth that was established in the Triangle Trade and benefit from the labor of the enslaved people on their Antigua plantation and at the Royall House--where the Royalls at times held six times as many slaves than any other local household. Therefore, the wealth that afford the Royalls to bequeath the capital to endow a law professorship at Harvard, now deemed the Royall Chair, was intrinsically bound to the human capital that the Royall’s exploited.[ii]

Adopted in 1937 following the university’s tercentenary, the Royall crest became the seal of the Harvard Law School and would serve as a visual reminder of the the family’s connection to the law school. When it was adopted, there is no evidence that the Harvard Corporation thought to ask where the wealth from the Royall family came from. This reflects both the invisibility of African-Americans on the historical record and the long-standing inability of contemporary Americans to acknowledge the centrality of slavery and its legacy in American history.[iii] The iron seal that verifies the authenticity of the seal was re-discovered in the university’s Widener Library and was the topic of a 2001 issue of the Harvard Law Bulletin. While that post does not mention the Royall’s connection to slavery, the law school had been aware of the connection to slavery since at least 2000, when Harvard Law professor Daniel Coquillette began discussing his research about the history of the Law School.[iv] Additionally, archaeological digs had begun a year prior at the Royall House and Slave Quarters, the Royall’s residence turned historic house museum, with the intent to contribute evidence to expand the interpretation of slavery at the site.[v] The connection between the Royalls, slavery, and Harvard Law School by 2000 were public knowledge, but it was not until 2015 when the Royall Must Fall group was created in a tense climate and called for the removal of the Royall crest.




Royall House
Royall House. Medford, MA. Courtesy of the Boston Public Library.




Royall Family Crest
Royall Family Crest

Royall Must Fall

Students of the Law School created Royal Must Fall days before a racially-charged incident in Wasserstein Hall on November 18, 2015. Following a campus rally held by the Black Liberation Collective, about six portraits of black professors were vandalized. [vi] The group modeled their organization and demands after student activist group Rhodes Must Fall in Cape Town and Oxford where students lobbied to remove images of British imperialist Cecil Rhodes from the universities’ campuses. Royall Must Fall members contended that the shield endorsed a slaveholding legacy. A Crimson paper published at the time noted “That group of students denounced the vandalism as ‘an overt act of racial hatred’ in an open letter published in the Harvard Law Record, a student publication. They also claimed in their letter that the Thursday incident could be a reaction to their activism: They had placed several pieces of black tape over several depictions of the school’s seal around campus on Wednesday night, they wrote, alleging that someone had removed those pieces of tape and then placed them on the portraits of black faculty members.”[vii] Student groups like Reclaim Harvard Law, the Black Law Students Association, and Royall Must Fall participated in larger community discourses regarding race, diversity, and the treatment of minority students at Harvard Law School and saw this as a public manifestation of hostility they had encountered in the classroom.[viii]

Following the racially-charged vandalism, Harvard Law School Dean Martha L. Minow held community meetings to hear the demands of student activists. One of the results was the creation of a committee devised of faculty, students, staff, and alumni to debate the fate of the Law School’s controversial seal in November 2015.[ix] While the committee itself did not have the authority to remove the seal, their goal was to come to an agreement and send a recommendation to the Harvard Corporation--the highest governing body at Harvard-- on what should be done.      After debating the issue privately, the committee held an open community meeting in February 2016 to solicit feedback on the issue of the seal. A month later the committee submitted their recommendation to remove the seal to the Harvard Corporation, who complied with this judgment.[x] The Law School emblem was removed entirely by the end of April 2016, erasing its presence from doors, chairs, apparel, banners, letterheads, web pages, and social media avatars.[xi] While the Harvard Corporation agreed to officially retire the seal, both sides of this debate are worth exploring in order to understand how the Law School confronted issues of identity, inclusion, and interpretation.

Debate Surrounding the Shield

The opinion to remove the seal is what the committee decided to advocate for, and there is merit to this argument for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the call to remove the seal by the Royall Must Fall group and other students was part of a larger discussion surrounding race and the university environment. The official recommendation to remove the seal read:

“[T]he now-visible associations of the shield divide the Law School community and hinder engaging that portion of the institution’s past; that many who become aware of its origins are more likely to see the shield as a distasteful symbol of the past rather than as an opportunity to learn from that past. At bottom, this latter view rests on the conviction that there are better ways to engage the past and its legacy in the present than by retaining a symbol that so many members of the community reject”.[xii]

In this sense, the removal of the seal was seen as necessary because it was a divisive symbol that did not promote education about the past. According to those who felt alienated by the presence of the seal, its retirement was one of many demands student activists called for in a number of community meetings that they saw as essential to creating a more inclusive environment to minority students in the Law School. Seen in the context of this larger movement, the removal of the seal was an immediate, visceral result of student activists and was a way to acknowledge their grievances.

The removal of a seal associated with slavery is also impactful because it recognizes the strand that connects slavery to contemporary racial injustices. The committee wrote that they “understand the pervasiveness of the legacy of slavery and its continuing impact on the world in which we live. For the Law School, this means reminding ourselves and others of the role of wealth derived from slave labor in its founding and using that knowledge as a spur to promote racial justice within the broader mission of striving to ensure that the law itself is just through the students we educate”.[xiii] In this interpretation, the act of removing the seal was a way to acknowledge the legacy of slavery and its impact on the broader social justice issues the students were passionate about. This step towards acknowledging how the seal was interpreted by minority students can also be seen as a step towards reconciliation. The removal of the seal recognizes the symbolic nature of oppression that the Royall crest harbored and how it affected the identity of the Law School. Therefore, by retiring the crest, the Law School acknowledges the connection between their university and slavery and refuses to promote that symbol as an identity marker for its values and student body.

Additionally, the contemporary interpretation of the symbol and its attachment to slavery reveals more broadly the way symbols can change. In this case, before the Law School knew of the shield’s origins many African American alumnus reported the shield as being a symbol of accomplishment.[xiv] The value ascribed to symbols is pertinent in contemporary American society where there is a constant debate surrounding the display of the Confederate flag and what it symbolizes. The committee specifically confronted overt and inadvertent symbols of oppression when they wrote “the shield is not the Confederate battle flag–it was not adopted as the rallying symbol for an unjust cause and has not been used throughout its history in the service of injustice. Nonetheless, many–although by no means all–people of all races and ethnicities see it as a symbol of  exclusion–a reminder of an exclusionary past that should have no place in an inclusive present”.[xv] This distinction between two different symbols of oppression shows the malleability of symbols and how with new information, more innocuous symbols like the Royall crest can convey different values than originally intended.

While the removal of the seal was seen as the best option to represent contemporary values that were not conducive with the crest’s association with the Royall family, not all members of the community agreed with that action. One of the main voices of dissent was Annette Gordon-Reed, currently the Charles Warren Professor of American Legal History at Harvard Law School. Gordon-Reed argued in her written dissenting opinion that maintaining the shield is the best option by “tying it to a historically sound interpretive narrative about it, [that] would be the most honest and forthright way to insure that the true story of our origins, and connection to the people whom we should see as our progenitors (the enslaved people at Royall’s plantations, not Isaac Royall), is not lost”.[xvi] In this argument, the loss of the shield means the loss of historical narratives of enslaved persons and further marginalizes their role in history. This idea reconstructs the Royall crest and the endowment as a tribute to the slave labor that allowed for the wealth of the Royalls and the law school, rather than viewing it as a symbol of oppression. The argument is furthered when she adds “It is far more likely that these descendants of enslaved people understand what 60 years of slavery historiography have taught us: the Royall Plantation was not about Isaac Royall. It was primarily about the enslaved men, women, and children whose forced labor enriched people like the Royalls and helped fuel the wealth of Western nations”.[xvii] Again, this point is to acknowledge the contemporary historiography of American slavery and places the enslaved people at the center of the dialogue, rather than making it about the slaveowners.

Gordon-Reed also notes the nature of the symbol when arguing that the shield does not harbor any resemblance to Isaac Royall Jr. and therefore does not herald him. She writes the shield “contains no physical representation of Royall, which would be an unambiguous celebration of the man himself. It is, thus, not like the statue of Cecil Rhodes that has roiled Oriel College, Oxford and sparked the movement copied here at HLS. As lawyers, we are trained to distinguish situations—to notice how this particular thing is not like that other particular thing—and to find the reasoning about them that should flow from those differences.”[xviii] Gordon-Reed also acknowledges the malleability of symbols, especially when they are not modeled after an individual like the Royall crest. In this argument, Gordon-Reed shows the difference in the symbols that the Royall Must Fall and the Rhodes Must Fall groups fought to extinguish.

Both parties debating about removing the shield state that the connection between the Law School and the endowment afforded by enslaved person’s labor needs to be interpreted to convey the continual effects of slavery, showing that no matter the outcome the student activism was never solely about the shield. Gordon-Reed gives several suggestions for further interpretation and opportunities for community dialogue about the legacy of slavery. Opportunities for further discussion could start with a ceremony for the 200th anniversary of the Law School, but should be extended through a variety of different avenues. This could manifest in further research, a public memorial, a scholarship fund, ongoing educational programs for students and the community, along with other opportunities the Law School deems suitable. One example of further action taken by Harvard was the “Universities and Slavery: Bound by History” Conference in March 2017. This conference was inspired by an opinion piece written by Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust to further interrogate its links to slavery. This aspiration to further understand Harvard University’s connection to slavery began in 2007 with the Harvard Slavery Initiative, spearheaded by Sven Beckert, and is a practice exhibited by other universities as well.

One additional avenue that could be explored is reparations because the concept is uniquely tied to the Royalls. Reparations have always been a topic of debate, even when slavery was still legal, and the debate has become central to the contemporary national dialogue surrounding race with the Georgetown Memory Project, the Black Lives Matter movement, and articles like “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates’ article mentions the Royalls specifically in the case of Belinda, a female slave who petitioned the nascent Massachusetts legislature for monetary reparations in 1783 and won her case. The reparations Coates and others call for are not solely satisfied with monetary ends, but needs to include “the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences” in order to acknowledge the multitude of racist practices that evolved from slavery’s legacy.[xix] Harvard Law School, with its ties to the Royall family and the reparations paid to Belinda, are fit to explore the concept of total reparations because of their connection to the practice. It does not necessarily have to be monetary, but can be part of the holistic reckoning with the collective American biography. Harvard University has already stepped towards this with the conference and research mentioned previously, but the school’s connection to slavery should continue to be investigated for its own sake and as a model for other universities. Research that ties institutions to slavery allows the public to see the expansive influence slavery held when it was practiced and the residual effects it has today on race in America.



Harvard University Law School Buidling
Law School, Harvard University. Courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Collections.







Harvard Law School Shield
Controversial Harvard Law School Shield

“Universities and Slavery: Bound by History" Conference Keynote
Harvard President Drew Faust (left) and Ta-Nehisi Coates at “Universities and Slavery: Bound by History" Conference Keynote. Photo. From: Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer, https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2017/03/probing-how-colleges-benefited-from-slavery/ (accessed December 18, 2017).

Works Cited

[i]  “The Royal Bequest and Harvard Law School,” Royal House and Slave Quarters, accessed April 2, 2017, http://www.royallhouse.org/the-royall-bequest-and-harvard-law-school/.

[ii] Janet Halley, “My Isaac Royall Legacy (Harvard Law Professorship Founded Upon Funds Generated by Slavery),” Blackletter Law Journal 24 (Spring, 2008): 117-131.

[iii] Bruce H. Mann et al.,“Recommendation to the President and Fellows of Harvard College on the Shield Approved for the Law School”


[iv] Royal House and Slave Quarters, “The Royal Bequest and Harvard Law School.”

[v] Alexandra A. Chan, “Translating Archaeology for the Public: Empowering and Engaging Museum Goers With the Past,” International Journal of Heritage Studies 17 vol. 2 (2011): 170.

[vi] Associated Press in Boston, “Portraits of Black Harvard Law School Professors Defaced after Campus Rally” The Guardian, November 19, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/nov/19/harvard-law-school-black-professors-portraits-defaced.

[vii] Andrew M. Duehren, “Police Investigate Vandalism on Portraits of Black Law Professors,” The Crimson, November 20, 2015, http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2015/11/20/law-school-vandalism-portraits/.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Claire E. Parker, “Law School Affiliates Unsurprised, But Divided Over Seal Recommendation,” The Crimson, March 9, 2016, http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2016/3/8/affiliates-react-HLS-seal/.

[x] Claire E. Parker, “Committee and Activists Debate Law School Seal,” The Crimson, February 5, 2016, http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2016/2/5/law-school-discusses-seal/.

[xi] Claire E. Parker, “After Corporation Approval, Law School Seal Quickly Disappearing,” The Crimson, March 21, 2016, http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2016/3/21/hls-seal-change-logistics/.

[xii] Bruce H. Mann et al., “Recommendation to the President and Fellows of Harvard College on the Shield Approved for the Law School,” 9.

[xiii] Ibid, 9.

[xiv] Ibid, 7.

[xv] Ibid, 8.

[xvi] Anette Gordon-Reed and Annie Rittgers, “A Different View,” https://today.law.harvard.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/Shield_Committee-Different_View.pdf

[xvii] Ibid, 2.

[xviii] Ibid, 2.

[xix] Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic, June 2014. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/.