This Wednesday, Harvard students demonstrated in solidarity with black student activists who’ve recently led protests at Yale, the University of Missouri, and other campuses across the country. This Thursday, portraits of black faculty members of Harvard Law School were defaced, an incident being investigated as a hate crime. The vandalism prompted an immediate “community meeting” at the law school, during which Dean Martha Minow acknowledged the issue of racism within the school, and students voiced concern that the administration hadn’t risen to address it adequately. Earlier this month students urged a revision of the school’s seal, which harkens back to the family crest of Isaac Royall Jr., a slaveholder and early benefactor of Harvard Law. They expressed that desire in part by placing black tape on mats displaying the seal, and those very strips of tape appear to have been the material used to deface the professors’ portraits.
In On the Battlefield of Merit, Daniel R. Coquillette and Bruce A. Kimball tell the story of Harvard Law School’s first hundred years. The following excerpt from the book details how the Royall family’s violent reaction to a planned slave rebellion set in motion the events that would lead to Isaac Royall’s gift to the school.
The oldest and arguably the most distinguished chair in American legal education is Harvard’s Royall Professorship of Law. Its distinction comes not from its age or its founder, but from those who have held it. These include distinguished figures in legal education: Paul Freund, Archibald Cox, Benjamin Kaplan, John Chipman Gray, Joseph Beale, Simon Greenleaf, James Bradley Thayer, Vern Countryman, Robert Clark, David Herwitz, and Janet Halley. But it is a historical fact that this chair is directly linked to a slave revolt on the Island of Antigua in 1736.
The revolt had been carefully planned and involved about 2,000 slaves, many driven to desperation by starvation and thirst from terrible droughts. Like most Antiguan slaveholders, the Royalls grew sugar cane. A single nick of the razor-sharp cane knives would cause infected wounds, many fatal. Slaves outnumbered white men four to one in 1723, and by 1729, 2,846 more slaves had arrived, with little increase in the white population. In 1727, 6.5 percent of the public budget of Antigua, which included the island’s defense, was spent on “Executions of Negros, for running away and for felony.” The 1736 uprising was preceded by the Ikem dance, performed in broad daylight by the slaves’ leader, “King” Court, “the chief Person in this affair.” This was “an Akan royal ritual meant to seal the support of one’s countrymen, while also giving public and fair warning to those whom one intended to attack.” The white spectators had no idea of what the dance meant, “thinking it an entertainment put on by and for slaves.” There were also oaths, administered with sacred drinks prepared by “an Obeah man,” an “Akan shaman-type figure, who leant the ceremony spiritual gravity.”
Testimony in the subsequent official British inquiry revealed that “enslaved people had met regularly in the forest for years: that one night, many years before the revolt, more than 2,000 of them had reportedly gathered and crowned Court their king and leader; and that he had since that time assumed that role among the island’s blacks.” The conspiracy was carefully planned, with three “generals” in command of three troops of 400 slaves each, to attack as the whites were celebrating at the King’s Coronation Day Ball. Communication through fire signals with other slave enclaves was set up to coordinate attacks on arsenals and the distribution of arms. The goal was “A new African or Creole government,” which would make “Antigua the first African nation in the New World.”