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Letter in the Harvard Law Record: Royall Must Be Recognized, Not Revered

Royall Must Be Recognized, Not Revered

Students at Harvard Law School are calling for a change to the school’s seal, which incorporates the family crest of HLS benefactor Isaac Royall, one of the biggest slaveholders in colonial greater Boston. I’ve often heard people react protectively towards the historic names on buildings, street signs, and other institutions, saying that you can’t try to erase a piece of history just because you don’t like it. I agree on the surface, but as a historian and museum professional who studies how we create and perpetuate public memory, I cannot ignore the fact that we as a society erase or paint over pieces of history all the time. Just as photographs can never be fully objective because something is always left out of the frame, public memory is a process of constant choices. There’s simply too much history to commemorate all of it all of the time, and what we commemorate changes. What’s important is that we as a society choose wisely when we honor people from the past.