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Harvard Law Might Ditch Its Iconic Seal Because Of Its Ties To Slavery

The logo is a tribute to an 18th century slaveholder.

In the latest demand from students for change on campus, Harvard Law School is considering ditching an iconic symbol. The school's seal, which features Harvard's motto, "Veritas" ("truth" in Latin), across three books over three bundles of wheat, is on the chopping block because of its ties to an 18th century slaveholder.

According to the Associated Press, the image is "borrowed from the family crest of Isaac Royall Jr." and is a tribute to the wealthy merchant "who donated his estate to create the first law professorship" at Harvard University before it established its law school in the 19th century. Royall made a large portion of his fortune in slave trading and his family owned dozens of slaves at its Massachusetts home.

The Harvard Crimson reports that Harvard Law's dean, Martha Minow, has appointed a committee to reconsider the seal after a group of students calling themselves "Royall Must Fall" demanded its removal at a rally last month.

"Symbols are important," Minow said of the seal, which has represented the school for nearly 80 years and is found on buildings, Harvard gear and banners all over campus. "They become even more important when people care about them and focus on them."

The Royall Must Fall movement took its cue from another student group, at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, which successfully lobbied to get a statue of British colonialist Cecil Rhodes removed from campus in April.

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"Students, especially black students on campus have been advocating for a real look at ways racism exists at Harvard Law School," Rena Karefa-Johnson, a third year law student and one of the members of Royall, told MTV News. Inspired by what happened in South Africa and the international students at Harvard who talked about the decolonization movement overseas, Royall is about removing the seal, but also about much more, according to Karefa-Johnson, who is also co-president of Harvard Law's Students for Inclusion group.

"Symbols are certainly important and they speak to what we value as a community and the ways we are willing or not willing to reckon with history as a community," she said. "No one thinks of the seal as a symbol of anti-blackness, but we have to constantly be thinking about how racism seeps into the way we do things."

The push to dump the seal got some added urgency last month when someone defaced portraits of black law professors at Harvard's Wasserstein Hall by putting strips of tape over their faces, an incident that's being investigated as a hate crime.

Minow said the committee -- made up of faculty, students and alumni -- should have its findings by March. On Tuesday (Dec. 1), members of Royall expressed hope that the ruling would be in their favor. "We are pleased that [Harvard Law School] has formed this committee," the group said in a letter to Minow, according to the Boston Globe. "It is a step in the right direction, and we will continue to push for accountability so that the change takes place."

Boston Globe

Asked if the three-month timetable seems reasonable, or if it feels too long, Karefa-Johnson said she's not surprised. "Lawyers are obsessed with process and having a process feels meaningful," she said. "I believe students made a great and compelling case for why we should absolutely change the seal. If that's what it takes on this issue for Harvard corporation to change this, to feel like they're doing it in a lawyerly way, so be it."

In the meantime, artist and Royall member Marium Khawaja has created what she calls a "more accurate" version of the seal.

"It's about what we're speaking about, whether or not you choose to make it visible or not, this law school was built on the backs of black people with their blood, tears and deaths," Karefa-Johnson said.

The seal controversy comes as both Harvard and Princeton recently decided to do away with the term "house masters" to describe undergrad residential housing staff; Yale is also considering doing the same, according to the Yale Daily News.