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The new Harvard Law School shield (left) replaces the retired seal (right), which sparked protests over its inclusion of imagery seen to glorify slavery.

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Harvard Law School (HLS) announced a new shield this morning after years of protests over its previous emblem, whose imagery some viewed as a glorification of slavery. The controversial former seal featured the family crest of Isaac Royall, Jr., a founding donor of the school who made his wealth through the labor of enslaved people in the mid-1700s.

The shield was officially retired in 2016 after a student activist group known as “Royall Must Fall” (RMF) successfully campaigned for its removal. Modeled after a student-led effort to remove a statue of British colonialist Cecil Rhodes from the University of Cape Town’s campus, the group is part of a larger movement for racial equity and institutional change at the university. RMF staged in-person rallies and sent an open letter to former HLS Dean Martha Minow calling for the symbol’s replacement.

In a 2015 op-ed, RMF members Alexander Clayborne, Sean Cuddihy, and Antuan Johnson described the crest as “a memorial to one of the largest and most brutal slave owners in Massachusetts.” The Royalls, they note, were notorious for their violent torture and killings of enslaved people. Daniel R. Coquillette and Bruce A. Kimball’s history of Harvard Law School, On the Battlefield of Merit (2015), describes the family’s murder of 88 Black individuals — including 77 burned alive at the stake — after a failed rebellion.

RMF edited the disgraced seal, which depicted the three wheat sheaves of the Royall coat of arms, to show three figures hoisting the heavy bundles on their backs — a protest artwork shared widely on the group’s social media.

Despite these efforts, the shield remained on the front doors of the university building as recently as March 2020, according to the Harvard Crimson. Over the past year, a working group of faculty, students, alumni, and staff led by HLS Professor Annette Gordon-Reed developed a new design, finally unveiled in the school’s press release today. The current shield features Harvard’s motto veritas (Latin for “truth”) printed across three open books over the Latin phrase lex et iustitia (“law and justice”). A curved line pattern echoing the architecture of the school’s Austin and Hauser halls takes up the bottom three quarters of the seal, where the Royall crest formerly appeared.

“I believe that the simple, elegant, and beautiful design of this shield captures the complexity, the diversity, the limitlessness, the transformative power, the strength, and the energy that the HLS community, in Cambridge and throughout the world, sees in Harvard Law School,” said Dean John F. Manning in the statement.

But some members of the HLS community believe the school’s press release downplays the role of student activists who mobilized to change the shield.

“Contrary to the announcement, a working group did not replace the shield. Student activists did,” tweeted HLS alumna Derecka Purnell. “There were actions, sit-ins, rallies, meetings, op-eds, debates, arguments, resistance surrounding this demand. Reading such a neutral email that a working group replaced this shield just hides this history in ways I find quite unfortunate.”

The statement does not refer to RMF by name, noting simply that “student activists and other community members advocated for the school to discontinue use of the shield.” When reached for comment, Prof. Gordon-Reed of the HLS Shield Working Group referred Hyperallergic to the “HLS Shield Exhibit” organized at the school’s Langdell Hall, which includes a timeline of events that mentions the RMF movement.

Harvard Law School has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.

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Valentina Di Liscia

Valentina Di Liscia is a staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Argentina, she studied at the University of Chicago and is currently working on her MA at Hunter College, where she received the...

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