Library exhibit looks at the history of the former Harvard Law School shield

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The Harvard Law School Library has opened a new exhibit—Facing History and Looking Forward: Retiring the Harvard Law School Shield—on the history of the Harvard Law School shield, documenting the shield’s ties to the family of Isaac Royall, Jr., the 18th century slaveholder whose bequest established the first professorship of law at Harvard in 1815.

Last year, after those ties were detailed by Professor Daniel Coquillette in his written history of the Law School, a group of law students calling itself Royall Must Fall called for the retirement of the shield, and HLS Dean Martha Minow appointed a special committee of faculty, students and staff to review the history of the shield, solicit views from across the HLS community, and make a recommendation.

In March, the committee—chaired by HLS Professor Bruce Mannrecommended that the shield be abandoned. With Dean Minow’s support, the Harvard Corporation accepted the committee’s recommendation.

The new exhibit has been mounted in the Caspersen Room of the Langdell Hall and also online, displaying key documents and other items that illustrate the history of the Royall household and the slaves whose labor Royall exploited. Also documented: the history of the adoption of the Royall crest as the Law School’s shield in 1936 (when the University mandated that all Harvard schools adopt individual variations of the ‘veritas’ seal); the debate last year over the call to retire the shield; and the report and recommendation of the Mann Committee (including a separate, dissenting view from Professor Annette Gordon-Reed and law student Annie Rittgers ’17).

Royall Shield

Credit: Lorin Granger By early April, the shield, which was modeled on the Royall crest, was removed from sites all over campus.

In agreeing to retire the shield last March, Harvard University President Drew Faust and Senior Fellow William F. Lee wrote on behalf of the Corporation: “Modern institutions must acknowledge their past associations with slavery, not to assign guilt, but to understand the pervasiveness of the legacy of slavery and its continuing impact on the world in which we live.” They emphasized that, while they accepted the request to change the shield, “we do so on the understanding the School will actively explore other steps to recognize rather than to suppress the realities of its history, mindful of our shared obligation to honor the past not by seeking to erase it, but rather by bringing it to light and learning from it.”

As one of the first such steps, Dean Minow asked the HLS Library to create and display an exhibit, and to create an online version at the same time.

“The Library has the privilege of preserving the history of the Law School,” said Jocelyn Kennedy, executive director of the Harvard Law School Library. “Our Historical and Special Collections staff were thrilled to work with colleagues on the faculty to identify relevant historical documents, and curate visual representations to illustrate the story of the Royall family, the Law School, and the Shield. We are quite proud of the results of our combined effort to create a physical and virtual exhibit which explores the past, while creating space to imagine the future.”

Tours of the exhibit were included in this year’s orientation program for incoming students, and—as Minow has done at every orientation during her deanship—she spoke to new students about the Royall legacy and she cited slavery as an example of something profoundly unjust that was nevertheless lawful for a long time. She urged students to question what may be lawful today, to think critically about the kinds of modern injustices that may nonetheless be “legal,” and to use their skills as lawyers to eradicate injustice wherever they see it.