Student group seeks to scrub Harvard Law's official seal, citing its ties to the slave trade

BOSTON – Some students at Harvard Law School want it to change its official seal, citing its ties to an 18th-century slaveholder.

The seal depicts three bundles of wheat, an image borrowed from the family crest of Isaac Royall Jr. It’s meant to pay tribute to Royall, a wealthy merchant who donated his estate to create the first law professorship at Harvard University, just before the university established the law school.

But Royall made much of his wealth through the slave trade, and his family owned dozens of slaves at its Massachusetts house, which is now a museum.

Students who oppose the seal say it’s insulting to see a symbol of racism proudly displayed on buildings, shirts and other merchandise. The students, organized under the name Royall Must Fall, have held campus demonstrations denouncing the seal and demanding its removal.

Third-year law student Brian Klosterboer, who’s behind the movement, said the crest is a “reminder of this vicious family.”

“People say we should remember the history, but I think a lot of people don’t even know about it,” Klosterboer said.

A spokeswoman for the Cambridge law school, which has about 2,000 students each year, declined to comment.

The push to remove the seal was inspired by efforts at colleges in South Africa and England to remove symbols of colonization. In both countries, students have urged their schools to remove statues of British colonist Cecil Rhodes. Protesters in both countries have said Rhodes’ legacy is tainted with racism.

Royall was a brutal slaveholder who was known for killing slaves, burning at least one at the stake, said Dan Coquillette, a visiting professor at Harvard’s law school. Royall moved to Massachusetts after operating a plantation with hundreds of slaves in the West Indies, Coquillette said.

Still, Coquillette, who explored Royall’s history in a recent book, said he doesn’t think the school should erase that history.

“I’m very sympathetic to the students, but I also don’t like sanitizing history,” he said. “To obscure the history of the school obscures how far we’ve come.”

Klosterboer contends that there are other ways to remember the history, such as a library exhibit or plaques on campus. Students haven’t proposed an alternative crest yet, saying they’re focused on gathering thoughts from students and professors on the existing coat of arms.

Another third-year law student opposing the seal, Alexander Clayborne, said the effort is only the first part of a broader examination of the law school.

“Our larger goals include decolonization of the law school in general,” he said, “and decolonization of the law school curriculum.”