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News Posted on September 23, 2019

Harvard Professor Gordon-Reed speaks at King Hall about public monument controversy

By Carla Meyer

Annette Gordon-Reed, Charles Warren Professor of American Legal History at Harvard Law School, professor of history at Harvard University and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, delivered the Central Valley Foundation/James B. McClatchy Lecture on the First Amendment on Sept. 18 at UC Davis School of Law.

Her talk, “Monuments, Shields, and Statues: What, and Who, Belong in the Public Sphere?” addressed protests that erupted during the past several years regarding Confederate statues and other controversial public monuments.

Gordon-Reed immersed herself in the debate in 2016, she told the overflow crowd in King Hall, when she disagreed with Harvard Law School’s decision to drop the school’s official symbol.

The symbol depicted the family crest of 18th century slaveholder Isaac Royall Jr., who had endowed the first law professorship at the school. Gordon-Reed was part of a committee formed to decide the fate of the crest, which had sparked a student protest that was one of many that followed the 2015 shooting of nine black people by a white supremacist at a Charleston, S.C. church.

The shield held imagery of sheaves of wheat rather than an image of Royall, and “sheaves of wheat could be whatever we wanted them to be about,” Gordon-Reed said. She proposed the shield be “reconsecrated” to represent the enslaved people whose work had enriched Royall and helped found the law school.

This way, the school could maintain a symbol that had for nearly two centuries represented the accomplishments of Harvard Law alumni. Those alumni included civil rights leaders like Charles Hamilton Houston, who had become dean of Howard University Law School and helped dismantle Jim Crow laws.

She was voted down.

“My consolation prize was a monument on the grounds of the law school,” Gordon-Reed said. “It is a gigantic granite boulder with a plaque on it … you have to pass it (at the law school). So it hasn’t been totally lost.”

Gordon-Reed won the Pulitzer Prize for her 2008 book “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family,” a subject she had written about before in her 1997 book “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy.”

These works forever transformed scholarship, and perspectives, about Jefferson’s relationships to Hemings and her children. It is now impossible to consider Jefferson without thinking of his exploitation of enslaved people.

It is important to acknowledge “the bad things founding fathers did,” Gordon-Reed said. But that does not mean every statue needs to come down. Some figures are inextricable from institutions, like Jefferson and the school he founded, the University of Virginia.

There is far less nuance to the role of Confederate statues in public spaces.

“The Confederates were people who went against the flag of the United States of America,” Gordon-Reed said. “Why should they be honored in the American public sphere? … What kind of justice do you think African Americans feel they would get walking into a courthouse with a Confederate general out front?”

Earlier this year, Gordon-Reed became the subject of her own public tribute when her hometown of Conroe, Texas, unveiled a bust in her likeness in a city park.

The tribute is “very weird, but very nice,” Gordon-Reed said after her lecture. A good friend of her late mother’s had lobbied for the tribute, she said.

So is her monument now part of the public discourse?

“It will be interesting to see whether anybody pays attention to it in the future,” Gordon-Reed said.