J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Honoring Belinda’s Contribution to the Law

In 1936, Harvard University appropriated the heraldry of the Royall family to be the crest of its law school, honoring Isaac Royall for endowing the first law professorship.

Under the holophrastic Harvard motto, that crest shows three sheafs of wheat bound up after harvesting. There’s no sign of who did the harvesting. Of course, most observers would also not be able to identify that crest with Isaac Royall or recall what he had to do with it.

The “Royall Must Fall” campaign at Harvard has adapted that image by showing three workers in dark silhouettes bending under the burden of that wheat (shown here). That’s not actually how people carry such sheaves, I believe, but it’s a clever reappropriation of the Royall imagery. It’s also an emblem of black subservience that the campaign surely doesn’t want to become permanent.

The campaign has floated the idea of renaming the Royall Professorship of Law after Belinda Royall, a woman enslaved on Isaac Royall’s estate in Medford. Her 1783 petition for a pension in compensation for her labor was reprinted across the English-speaking world, thus becoming a more important legal document than Isaac Royall ever produced.

Now it’s not clear Belinda ever used or would have been happy with the surname “Royall.” She was legally “Belinda” until a late marriage, when she started to appear in documents as “Belinda Sutton,” according to the Royall House & Slave Quarters.

But an annual “Belinda Lecture” at the Harvard Law School could be a way to regularly shift honor from the legacy of Isaac Royall to the cause of his former servant, from a man who inherited great wealth and power to a woman who had to repeatedly argue for fair treatment. Would that be the equivalent of reenacting the toppling of George III’s statue, an annual reaffirmation of the more inclusive values we share today?

COMING UP: Visual renewal of old symbols.

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