As a Harvard Law School committee was issuing its recommendation March 3 to do away with the institution’s controversial seal, the man who helped bring the issue to light was preparing to give a lecture -- appropriately enough -- on inflammatory symbols of the past.
“How’s that for a coincidence?” asked Daniel Coquillette.
A former dean of the Boston College Law School and current Charles Warren Visiting Professor of American Legal History at Harvard Law School, the bespectacled Coquillette might not be the most public force behind the recent movement to examine the school’s racial climate.
But as co-author of the 2015 book, “On the Battlefield of Merit: Harvard Law School, The First Century” -- which outlines the often unflattering racial history of the prestigious institution -- he has been widely credited with helping to jump-start it.
Coquillette’s book, co-written with Bruce A. Kimball, was referenced multiple times in the report issued by the committee charged with reviewing the seal, while two members specifically praised Coquillette’s research as the impetus that brought the crest’s unflattering backstory to light.
And following Monday’s announcement that the Harvard Corporation had accepted the recommendation to retire the shield -- marking the end of its 80-year run -- the author said he understood the decision.
“This symbol has become particularly painful to students,” Coquillette said Monday. “It permeates the life of the school -- it’s on all the podiums, the doormats to the main building.
The symbol, which includes the word “Veritas” and three sheaves of wheat, is derived from the crest of the Royall family, an 18th century brood that settled in Medford, by way of Antigua.
The Royalls, whose will would eventually establish the school’s first endowed law professorship, also happened to be known for their brutal treatment of slaves.
For Coquillette, the research project officially began in the late-1990s, when he and Kimball were awarded a four-year grant from the Spencer Foundation, which provides money for education-related research.
Their mission was to detail the history of the Harvard Law School. And what quickly struck the authors was that, while multiple books on the law school had been written, many aspects of its earlier years -- particularly those with negative associations -- had been left out.
One book, for instance, published in the early 1900s by Charles Warren, a leader in the anti-immigration movement of the time, obviously omits almost the entire 20th Century. Another, Arthur E. Sutherland’s “The Law at Harvard: A History of Ideas and Men, 1817-1967,” relied -- at least in Coquillette’s eyes -- far too heavily on Warren’s work, also leaving out the unpleasantries surrounding the Civil War.
Conspicuously missing, the authors believed, were descriptions of the school’s ties to both slavery and the Confederacy, as well as any attention to prominent minority students who had passed through the school.
At one point during his research, Coquillette remembers sitting with a granddaughter of Charles Hamilton Houston, a Harvard Law School alum who would go on to serve as dean of the law school at Howard University, and a man Coquillette calls “one of the great black leaders to graduate from the school.” During their conversation, the granddaughter’s attention turned to the copy of Sutherland’s history that Coquillette had with him.
“She said, ‘Oh, let me look in the index and see what they said about Grandpa,’” said Coquillette, who also serves as the J. Donald Monan Professor of Law at Boston College. “And I knew right away that he isn't in there at all.”
Deeming the previous attempts lackluster, Coquillette and Kimball resolved to produce an honest, critical look at Harvard Law School’s founding -- and its oftentimes bigoted history.
Their research was extensive. Coquillette, for his part, traveled to Antigua, where, following a failed slave revolt in the 1730s, the Royall family responded with violent force. The authorsalso pored over old letters and correspondence, interviewed former deans and relatives of those associated with the law school.
What they discovered served as the basis for what would later appear in the book. Among their findings: that the school was reluctant to admit both minorities and women, that among degree-granting institutions of the time, “only West Point educated more high-ranking officers for the Confederacy than did Harvard Law School”; and that the Royall family provided the school “not only its first endowed chair but also its seal.”
The law school’s complicated racial history had been broached, in various ways, before. In 2011, a group of students and faculty released a report detailing the law school’s ties to slavery. And current Royall Professor of Law Janet Halley wrote of the chair’s history in a 2008 essay. In it, she specifically mentioned Coquillette’s work.
But it wasn’t until this past fall, around the time of the book’s release, that some of the issues began earning more wide-spread attention.
As a pair of committee members wrote in the March 3 report, “Until Dan Coquillette’s excellent work on the history of HLS, most people did not know of the connection between the Royalls, the sheaves, and the Law School.”
That includes Mawuse Vormawor, a master’s law student who, after hearing Coquillette speak about his research last year, would go on to co-organize Royall Must Fall, a group dedicated to doing away with the crest.
“All this would not have happened,” Vormawor said, “had I not gone to that event and had I not been struck by it to this extent.”
Citing his role as the committee’s neutral expert, Coquillette said that it would be inappropriate to share his opinion on the committee’s recommendation, but he did praise both sides -- the 10 committee members who supported the shield’s retiring, and the two who didn’t -- for their thoughtful remarks.
Coquillette and Kimball are now busy wrapping up the second and final volume of their history of the law school. Slated for a 2018 release, the next book will cover the institution’s history between 1910 and around 1990, Coquillette says, touching on everything from the Red Scare to the Civil Rights movement to the Vietnam War protests.
More than anything, though, the writers hope that, by the end of it, they will have compiled the most accurate and complete picture of the law school’s history to date.
“I’m sure 100 years from now people will say that we didn’t get the whole story, too,” Coquillette says. “But we’ve sure tried a lot harder.”Dugan Arnett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @duganarnett.