“I didn’t come to Harvard expecting it to be the most welcoming experience,” Leland Shelton said. Shelton, a third year student at Harvard Law and the president of the school’s Black Law Students Association, reflects on the decision he made to come to a predominantly White institution that has succumbed to hate crimes just like other colleges including Yale, the University of Missouri and Ithaca. “I just want our administration to be as brilliant as our students are.”
He and his classmates are more alert about the racism on campus now more than ever. Just yesterday morning, students were alarmed to find that the portraits of Harvard Law School’s Black tenured professors were defaced with black gaffer tape.
“I certainly believe that students are not going to sit back and let the administration placate us with town halls. We require more than that. I do have hope, as [the administration] is open to critique about how to improve the school. However, it’s going to take a continued effort from the law students to bring up these issues to the forefront.”
The portraits, which have since been restored, sit in Wasserstein Hall. It is alleged that the stunt was pulled in retaliation against protests that were being conducted by the “Royall Must Fall” student collective. Royall Must Fall is a movement that has been started to urge Harvard’s administration to change a school crest referring to Isaac Royall, Jr, a highly successful plantation owner from the 18th century. For the activist art exhibit, Royall Must Fall students had placed the gaffer tape on top of the crests that are fixed on the building and posted facts about Royall to spread awareness about how the slave owner’s legacy was being commemorated on campus.
“I don’t know if there really are words,” 2L Harvard Law student Kristen Turner said. Turner first heard about the incident through a friend that had texted her pictures of the defaced portraits as her friend walked through the building. Turner said that today’s Black liberation movement has colored her experience at Harvard since the beginning of her time at her university. Students have waged protests along with fellow students at Boston University in the last 18 months against racial discrimination, but that this was one of the most blatant acts of racism she had seen thus far on campus. She stumbled in trying to describe how she felt about the latest hate crime that occurred at her school.
“I don’t know if was shocked that it happened. I really wasn’t surprised because we’ve been having an ongoing conversation about overt and implicit racism here in the country but also in the way that it can manifest here at an institution like Harvard Law.”
The activists had put up their exhibit in the building at approximately midnight on Wednesday. But the gaffer tape was taken down by the perpetrator a few hours later and reposted onto the professors’ portraits before classes began the following Thursday. The hate crime was discovered by students as they filed into the building for classes and tweeted about the incident that morning.
Student groups promptly responded to the issue. The Royall Must Fall organization released a statement in the Harvard Law Record saying:
As Royall Must Fall, we are saddened and disgusted by this violent act against black professors. This overt act of racial hatred is a manifestation of the systemic racism that pervades our daily lives at Harvard Law School and throughout the country…As a community, we must do better. We must take immediate action to confront systemic racism in our school and society.
Organizers took action to convene the student body as well, as they took over a faculty luncheon that had already been scheduled that day in Wasserstein to instead hold a town hall meeting for students frustrated and offended by the incident. In its statement, the Royall Must Fall group said that nearly a thousand students came to the event. The meeting that was supposed to last for only 60 minutes went on for more than two hours.
During the town hall, Shelton says that many students echoed Turner’s sentiment that they weren’t surprised about the racism that had come down on campus. They insisted that others needed to open their eyes to the issues that were dividing the campus. They also pointed out that school officials and professors needed to take more initiative in addressing the racism at Harvard.
“This work should be done by the administration,” Shelton said. “The onus shouldn’t be on the students to solve these issues. We pay $95,000 a year to go to this school to learn, not to fix the mess.”
This isn’t the first time the university has dealt with such discriminatory acts on campus in recent years. Shelton and Turner said that just weeks before, a swastika had been carved into one of the desks on campus.
Students demanded an office dedicated to diversity and inclusion and language to address racism within laws on campus. It was also suggested that professors go through trainings to address racism in their classrooms and to be more situationally aware of a learning environment that now features students from diverse backgrounds.
Turner said that one student raised a point saying: “Our teachers—even though they’re brilliant scholars—they’re not necessarily good teachers…They have not cared to recalibrate to the audience that they’re teaching to. So you have much older professors that are often coming from a particular socioeconomic background teaching a very dynamic audience. It’s more so that the student has to recalibrate to the teacher versus the teacher understanding the nuances of a changing society that yields diversity quotas in the classroom.”
The matter is currently being investigated by the police. There aren’t any security cameras in the building, so it will be difficult to trace who is responsible for the crime. The matter did end on a positive note, however. Determined to assert their voices on campus, students who were outraged about portraits went back and decorated them with post-its celebrating the professors. The post-its had kind notes showing students’ support and appreciation for their professors’ work.
Shelton says that students are working to show their solidarity with other campuses like the University of Missouri by continuing to highlight the racism they experience at school. A follow-up town hall meeting is expected to take place in the next two weeks for members of the Harvard community to present procedures that can offer solutions to racist incidents on campus like the one that occurred this week.
Keyaira Kelly contributed to this report.