Harvard ‘black tape’ vandalism brings law school’s controversial Caribbean plantation past to fore

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A post by Peter Jordens.

This story of student protest centers on the seal of Harvard Law School. In 1936, Harvard Law School adopted as its official seal the family crest of Isaac Royall Jr. (1719-1781) who, at his death, granted Harvard College money which it used to found the Law School in 1817. Isaac Royall Jr. was born on the family’s slave-holding plantation in Antigua, in the Popes Head region. A 1712–1713 census recorded 364 slaves on this plantation. For more about the Royall ties to Antigua, see http://harvardpress.typepad.com/hup_publicity/2015/11/isaac-royall-jr-slave-master-harvard-law-school-benefactor.html. Through marriage, Isaac Royall Jr. also acquired a sugar plantation in Surinam (see page 11 and footnote 26 of http://www.harvardandslavery.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/Harvard-Slavery-Book-111110.pdf).

The original story:

Tape placed over portraits of tenured black faculty comes after ‘art-action’ by black students attempting to draw attention to school seal’s slavery roots, Jamiles Lartey wrote in November in London’s Guardian.

Derecka Purnell was one of the first Harvard law students to see the black tape placed over about six portraits of Harvard Law School’s tenured black faculty Wednesday morning. “I was surprised to see it …” Purnell said, before reconsidering: “Actually, I wasn’t surprised at all.”

The incident comes at a moment when, nationwide, college students are demanding action against the entrenched white supremacy and racism they say still pervades campus life. Even at elite liberal universities such as Harvard – places where some might believe that racist symbols and behavior are a relic of the past – these discussions and protests persist.

And it’s working. In response to student demands, administrators at Princeton University announced Friday that they would consider renaming a dormitory currently named for former US president Woodrow Wilson, based on his well-documented racist views.

At Harvard, the tape that was pasted across the faces of black professors appears to have been taken from an “art-action” in which student activists placed black gaffer tape over the law school seal in several locations of the school’s main hub, Wasserstein hall. The action was carried out by members of the campus group Royall Must Fall (RMF) and was intended to draw attention to the seal’s history as the family crest of the wealthy and ruthless slaveholder Isaac Royall Jr.

Royall, whose endowment founded the law school in 1817, gained his immense wealth by way of his family’s Antigua plantation, where in the mid-1730s “seventy-seven enslaved people were burned alive, six were hanged, and five were broken on the wheel” in retaliation for a slave uprising, according to an open letter from RMF to the school’s dean, Martha Minow. The school adopted his family crest in 1936 as a part of a fundraising campaign.

Alexander Clayborne, a spokesperson for RMF, told the Guardian that the art-action was meant to be educational. “It was purely meant to call attention to the fact that the Harvard seal is the seal of a slaver and should be removed.”

He called the response of taking that tape and placing it on the faces of black professors “an act of blatant racial intimidation”.

“I think it’s part and parcel of the backlash that black students have seen around the country,” Clayborne said, referencing threats like those made against black students at the University of Missouri and Howard University last week.

Clayborne said that while the campus protest movements around the country have catalyzed RMF’s efforts, they drew their inspiration from student protests in South Africa which successfully organized to force the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes from the University of Cape Town campus. Rhodes was one of the architects of South African apartheid and the Royall Must Fall movement is part of a larger effort to decolonize the campus.

Eve Ewing, a doctoral candidate at Harvard’s school of education said that the incident had meaning for black students throughout Harvard’s campus, not just at the law school. “The act of putting the tape over the crest is a symbolic act that’s meant to say the legacy of slavery is not going to encompass what we want this institution to stand for.

“To take that tape and say, ‘Actually, we’re going to erase the legacy of important scholars who have paved the way for black scholars in higher ed’ makes it even more insulting.”

This is not the first time controversy has bubbled up around Royall’s legacy at the school. In 2003, when now supreme court justice Elena Kagan was named dean of Harvard Law School, she declined the endowed Royall professorship and instead chose a new chair in the name of Charles Hamilton Houston, the first black American on the Harvard Law Review.

Dr Ronald Sullivan, one of the black professors whose face was vandalized by the tape, said: “I’ve learned more about the crest than I’ve known in 25 years of association with Harvard,” citing the efforts of the student protesters.

And while the act was ostensibly directed at him, Sullivan said he was more interested in the opportunity for change than in punishment. “To the degree that the unintended effect of this cowardly act is that we create a better Harvard Law School, I would prefer that route to spending innumerable resources trying to catch the perpetrators,” Sullivan said.

Purnell, who is not one of the 30 to 35 students organizing for RMF, completely supports its removal, calling it the “confederate flag of Harvard”.

But, Purnell added: “It’s not about this one incident. It’s about a culture that allows these things to occur, and us not having institutional offices to really address them.

“So when these things happen, a lot of the white students are surprised but a lot of the black students feel the pressures of it every day.”

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