Harvard Law School on Sept. 5 dedicated a memorial to the slaves owned by early donor Isaac Royall Jr.
Harvard Law School on Sept. 5 dedicated a memorial to the slaves owned by early donor Isaac Royall Jr. ()

Harvard Law School opened is doors to aspiring lawyers 200 years ago, thanks in part to the largesse of Isaac Royall Jr. The early law school donor owned a Caribbean sugar plantation, a string of Massachusetts farms—and slaves.

The law school this week unveiled a memorial to those slaves to honor their contribution to the school’s founding and serve as a reminder that lawyers’ purpose is to pursue justice.

The memorial—a bronze plaque embedded in a large boulder that sits in a highly trafficked area between the law library, dining commons, and a clinical building—was commissioned after the university in 2016 decided to get rid of its longtime official seal. That seal featured elements of the Royall family coat of arms, namely three sheaths of wheat over a blue background. Law students advocated for the removal of the seal because of Royall’s connection to slavery.

Law dean John Manning said at a dedication ceremony Tuesday that the law school should be open about its origins and ties to the slave trade. “Our school was founded with wealth generated through the profoundly immoral institution of slavery,” Manning said, according to Harvard Law Today, the school’s internal publication. “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.”

The dedication, which drew 300 people, was held on the formal kickoff of the law school’s year-long bicentennial celebration.

The plaque 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.”

The text of the plaque was drafted by history and law professor Annette Gordon-Reed, who has written extensively on Thomas Jefferson’s slaves, including Sally Hemings, believed to have been the mother of six of Jefferson’s children.

Gordon-Reed was one of two members of the 12-person committee tasked in 2016 with evaluating the law school seal who disagreed with the final recommendation that it be changed. Instead, Gordon-Reed argued that retaining the seal 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.” She argued that the law school’s 200th anniversary would be the ideal time to rededicate the law school shield and make explicit the school’s debt to Royall’s slaves.

Gordon-Reed noted during the dedication ceremony on Tuesday that the memorial does not include the names of the slaves whose toil helped fund the law school’s founding, because many of their names are unknown. “The words are designed to invoke all of their spirits and bring them into our minds and our memories with the hope that it will spur us to try to bring to the world what was not give to them: the law’s protection and regard, and justice.”

But some slave names were recorded in documents, which were read aloud at the dedication by law professor Janet Halley.

Contact Karen Sloan at ksloan@alm.com. On Twitter: KarenSloanNLJ