Harvard Law Celebrates 200 years with memorial to slaves

  • Photos by Jon Chase

As Harvard Law School celebrates its 200 year anniversary, the school reckons with its past.

Harvard Law kicked off its bicentennial celebrations on Sept. 6 with a somber unveiling of a new memorial dedicated to the slaves owned by the Royall family, whose endowment fund helped finance the institution.

The plaque sits prominently on a rock in the plaza between Langdell Hall and the Caspersen Student Center. It reads, “In honor of the enslaved whose labor created wealth that made possible the founding of Harvard Law School. May we pursue the highest ideals of law and justice in their memory.”

Photo by Jon Chase

“We start our bicentennial today with this dedication and this tribute, and we place this memorial here, at the crossroads, at the very center of this school, where everyone travels, where everyone passes, so that it cannot be missed,” John F. Manning, dean of Harvard Law, said at the unveiling ceremony.

Harvard Law was founded in 1817 with an endowment from Isaac Royall, Jr. Royall’s wealth was derived from the labor of enslaved people that worked on the Royall sugar plantation in Antiqua and on a farm Royall owned in Massachusetts.

“Our school was founded with wealth generated through the profoundly immoral institution of slavery,” Manning said. “We should not hide that fact nor hide from it. We can and should be proud of many things this school has contributed to the world. But to be true to our complicated history, we must also shine a light on what we are not proud of.”

Manning added that the memory of the slaves would “inspire us to work to make law here, and throughout the world, an instrument for freedom, equality, democracy and human dignity.”

Photo by Jon Chase

The names of the Royall family salves were not included on the plaque, though they were read aloud at the ceremony, according to Harvard Law Today. Professor Annette Gordon-Reed, who drafted the memorial’s text, said that the omission of names was intentional as a reflection on the anonymity of slavery.

“The words are designed to invoke all of their spirits and bring them into our minds and into our memories, in the hopes that it will spur us to try to bring to the world what was not given to them — the law’s protection and regard, and justice,” Gordon-Reed said.

This is the second time the law school has acted to address its connections with the Royall family. In the spring of 2016, the Harvard Corporation granted the law school permission to discard its seal bearing the Royall family crest.