Annette Gordon-Reed tells historians the controversy over Harvard law school's shield is different from the fight over the Confederate flag

Historians in the News
tags: slavery, Confederate flag, Harvard Law School



This is from Peter Feinman's account of what happened at the roundtable discussion, "Universities and the Legacy of Slavery," held at the annual meeting of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR) in July. Harvard decided to retire the shield in March. Annette Gordon-Reed disagreed with the decision. 

Related Link Law School committee recommends retiring current shield

Her comments focused on the Harvard Law School and not the entire university. As a result she suggested, the scale of the conflict may have been smaller than incidents at other colleges particularly if undergraduates are involved elsewhere. She contrasted the situation in dealing with older law school students and teenage undergraduates perhaps away from home for the first time. Gordon-Reed may have been referring to events at Yale addressed by another panelist (see below).

As reported in The Crimson, according to the traditional view, Isaac Royall, the founder of the law school in 1817, inherited the wealth to fund it from his slave-trader father.  The Harvard committee commissioned to study the situation discovered that he had died in 1781, he bequeathed money to the college and not to the law school, and that the shield was created in 1936 without awareness of any potential connection to slavery.

The Royall family crest contains sheaves of wheat which became part of the Harvard Law School shield. It had been part of the campus and of tours for years without incident. Now it has become an existential crisis for many African-American students. She personally is opposed to changing it, the decision made by the University. In her dissent [available as a PDF] to the committee recommendation, Gordon-Reed wrote:

…the burning question for me has been, “What would be the best and easiest way to keep alive the memory of the people whose labor gave Isaac Royall the resources to purchase the land whose sale helped found Harvard Law School?”

She suggested a contextual approach which as it turns out was a recurring theme in how to approach this type of problem. She wrote:

Maintaining the current shield, and tying it to a historically sound interpretive narrative about it, would be the most honest and forthright way to insure that the true story of our origins…

Gordon-Reed contrasted the Law School shield with the Confederate flag: the former was not created and has not been viewed as a symbol of slavery whereas the Confederate flag [in its various forms] represented a people at war with the Union over the issue of slavery. Wheat as a symbol evokes no such connotations. Nor does it exalt a specific individual the way a statue does.

Instead the current issue and pending bicentennial provides Harvard Law School with an opportunity to take a leadership position:

We are coming upon our 200th anniversary. This would be a perfect time to re-dedicate the Law School and the shield—making explicit our debt to the enslaved and our commitment, in their memory, to the cause of justice.

Historians in particular have a special role to play in this process:

Thanks to historians, we have “new knowledge” that we are joined in history to a group of people entrapped in the tragedy of the Atlantic slave trade. This also joins us to the larger American story of slavery. We should take this knowledge and run with it, not away from it.

In the panel session itself, Gordon-Reed acknowledged the need for people to feel at home while at school. She offered no resolution to the situation since she doesn’t have one. Her advice is for the people involved to keep talking to each other.

An example of such conversation including with her just occurred when the Thomas Jefferson Foundation hosted a public event, “Memory, Mourning, Mobilization: Legacies of Slavery and Freedom in America” at Monticello which drew 2000 people. The meeting featured commentaries from a dozen participants, including historians, descendants of those enslaved at Monticello, cultural leaders and activists engaged in several far-ranging conversations on the history of slavery and its meaning in today’s conversations on race, freedom and equality. My impression from the report by the University of Virginia is that these conversations were more preaching to the choir than an attempt at “come let us reason together” among different constituencies. At the meeting, Marian Wright Edelman, Children’s Defense Fund, asked, “How can we close the gap between creed and deed?” Did the public event generate any suggested resolutions or were the participants as stumped as Gordon-Reed as to what to do in the real world when confronted with people who disagree with them?




comments powered by Disqus