Dename Winthrop?

Harvard’s process for considering denaming requests is tested for the first time.

Winthrop House

Winthrop House | PHOTOGRAPH BY NIKO YAITANES/HARVARD MAGAZINE

In November 2023, a group of students spoke at the Institute of Politics (IOP) about their campaign to dename Winthrop House. Earlier that year, in March, they had submitted an official denaming request to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) that detailed the legacy of the House’s namesakes—two John Winthrops who enslaved people (see discussion below). Following the submission of the report, students say, they received little communication about the status of the review. But at the IOP event, a faculty member approached them. “She said, ‘I’m going to be on the [review] committee, so excited to work with you guys this year,’” recalled Kiersten Hash ’25, an organizer with the campaign. “We’re like, ‘Oh, we didn’t know it was formed!’”

Later that month, Harvard formally announced that the FAS and the University had jointly convened a committee to review the denaming request. The review began two years after the Committee to Articulate Principles on Renaming—formed in December 2020 by then-president Lawrence S. Bacow and chaired by president emerita Drew Faust—produced a report providing a framework for considering requests to associated with people who engaged in behavior “many members of our community would today find abhorrent.” Although that report offered rigorous principles and processes to guide future reviews, it did not, and was not intended to, consider specific names or result in direct action.

The Winthrop review, then, marks the first time those principles are being applied to a specific case. (Students submitted another denaming request pertaining to the Arthur M. Sackler Museum and Building in October 2022; the University has not announced a review committee for that request. And a discussion about renaming Lowell House that preceded the formation of the committee chaired by Faust has not resulted in a formal request for renaming.) Since the formation of the Winthrop committee in November, students involved in the process say, committee members have met regularly to consider the relevant history and to hold listening sessions with different student groups.

University spokesperson Jason Newton declined to comment on the review process beyond a November 2023 Harvard Gazette interview with committee chair Sean Kelly, Martignetti professor of philosophy and dean of arts and humanities. The membership of the review committee has not been disclosed; according to the Gazette, it is “made up of faculty from several schools, with historical expertise and direct experience in the House system.”

A Catalytic Slavery Report

In April 2022, the University released the Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery report, which outlined Harvard’s historic ties to slavery. Mentioned therein were the two namesakes of Winthrop House: Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Winthrop (1588-1649) and his great-great-grandson Professor John Winthrop (1714-1779). Governor Winthrop, according to the report, enslaved a Pequot woman and two children—and instructed that Pequot War prisoners be sold as slaves in “the first large-scale, institutionalized distribution of people as property in the British North American colonies.” Professor Winthrop, the report says, enslaved two people and allowed a student, Eliphalet Pearson, to defend slavery in a debate at Harvard’s 1773 Commencement.

For many students, that report served as the catalyst for denaming advocacy: “As soon as the Legacy of Slavery report was released, the Generational African American Students Organization hosted a community conversation,” Hash says. “One of the primary calls to action was denaming.”

Students submitted an official denaming request in March, less than a year later. The FAS informed them on April 28, 2023, that their proposal had passed an initial administrative review, confirming that the request was complete and the requestors eligible. Students say they received few updates between then and the end of August, when the FAS informed the students that a formal review was underway but offered no further details. Though the denaming report calls for “extensive consultation and engagement with members of the Harvard community”—including students—it does not describe what form that engagement should take. Nor does the report specify whether the identities of people on review committees should be made public. Given that ambiguity and the lack of precedent, early in the fall semester, some students became concerned about transparency—particularly whether they would be able to communicate with the committee during the process.

But Hash says her interaction with the committee member at the IOP marked the beginning of a year of regular communication. After the University announced the formation of the committee in November, its members met with the students who submitted the request. (Though the identities of committee members have not been made public, they have been revealed to students with whom the committee engaged.) At that meeting, “they explained to us what they were there to do, and we explained our side,” said Clyve Lawrence ’25, another campaign organizer. “We were able to set the terms of the relationship, including what information would be shared with us, some of the stakeholders we wanted them to eventually reach out to, and how we were going to communicate different concerns throughout the year.”

The meeting also included “filling some information gaps,” Lawrence continued: “They didn’t know that there was a Generational African American Students Organization (GAASA),” he said. “So, we told them this group exists, and here’s who you can reach out to.” GAASA promotes activism and community among African American students descended from enslaved people; students in the group spearheaded the denaming campaign along with students in another organization, Natives at Harvard College (NaHC).

Principles, and the Historical Evidence

In the Gazette interview, Kelly outlined the principles guiding the review, drawing from the denaming report. First, he said, the decision must be “intellectually rigorous and based on a careful study of the facts and the history.” That rigorous study should consider “the significance of the alleged behavior in its historical context,” he continued. The denaming report also stresses the importance of historical context: “The case for denaming is stronger if the namesake’s actions or beliefs we now regard as abhorrent would have been regarded as objectionable in the namesake’s own time.”

The students’ denaming request argues that this criterion has been met: in correspondence with the first John Winthrop, founder of Rhode Island Roger Williams voiced his concerns about the enslavement of Native people. And during the second John Winthrop’s lifetime, as outlined in the denaming request, many people were critical of the institution of slavery—including Theodore Parsons, the student who argued against slavery during the debate at the 1773 Commencement. Slavery was outlawed in Massachusetts in 1783—further evidence, the request argues, that Winthrop’s views were seen as abhorrent during the latter part of the eighteenth century.

Moreover, some students are skeptical of the report’s passive voice construction: when committee members consider “if the actions…would have been regarded as objectionable,” whose perspective is considered? “To the counterargument that, ‘at the time, [slavery] wasn’t considered morally wrong,’” Hash says, “the question is: considered morally wrong by whom? Obviously, people who were enslaved did not condone this system, and their stories are often erased.” Morgan Curtis, M.T.S. ’23—a descendent of John Winthrop who has called for the house to be denamed—also sees the Winthrops’ actions as abhorrent by historic standards: “We’re not asking to judge these historic figures by the standards of our time,” she said, “but by broader, more inclusive standards of their own time, recognizing that the perspective of those in power was not the only perspective.”

Another principle guiding the review, Kelly said in the Gazette, is “what role the alleged behaviors play in the broader context of the legacy of these individuals.” This language echoes the denaming report, which says that “the case for removing an individual’s name will be strongest when the behaviors now seen as morally repugnant are a significant component of that individual’s legacy when viewed in the full context of the namesake’s life.” Students argue that this was the case for the Winthrops. Governor Winthrop did not just enslave individuals, argued Joseph Hernandez ’25, who helped conduct historical research for the report: “This person played a huge role in legalizing [slavery] in the colonies and eventually the United States.”

The question of legacy is related to historical questions being considered by the committee. “There’s a question about the precise role Gov. Winthrop may have played” in the Pequot War, Kelly said in the interview, as well as about his role in the passage of the Body of Liberties—a legal code that made Massachusetts the first colony to legalize slavery. Winthrop was on the committee that drafted the code, but records describing his exact role have not survived. “Lastly,” Kelly added, “there’s a question about whether Professor Winthrop played a role in either directly or indirectly advocating for slavery in the mid-1700s in Massachusetts and at Harvard.”

The Current Environment

In addition to historical evaluation, the committee is also considering whether the “name creates an environment that undermines the ability of students, faculty, or staff to participate fully in the work of the University,” in the Faust committee report’s language. To hear from students, the review committee conducted “listening sessions” throughout the spring semester with student groups including NaHC, GAASA, the Black Students Association, and Winthrop House residents. In listening sessions, Hernandez said, students stated that the name has affected their experiences: “A lot of students of color don’t want to have the name of someone responsible for the history of slavery on their house.” Elyse Martin-Smith ’25 echoed this view: “As a black student on this campus, and as a Winthrop resident, for me it’s hard to partake in House activities because of how harmful the legacy of slavery is, and how much a name can hold.”

Several students said they were impressed by the respect and consideration given to their perspectives during the listening sessions. They were among “the few times I’ve seen faculty members, faculty deans, people within the residential community, and students…in genuine dialogue with each other,” said Martin-Smith. Hash concurred, noting, “[Committee members] were very open and receptive to what we had to say, and I’d like to see models like that in terms of what committees look like at Harvard. ... That non-hierarchical conversation with students was really powerful.”

In Prospect

Based on its consideration of the claims made in the request, the committee will produce a report with one of three recommendations: take no action, dename, or keep the name but contextualize it. Under the denaming procedure, the final decision will then be made by the University president and FAS dean in consultation with the Corporation. (It’s unclear whether the interim status of President Alan Garber would affect his ability to make a decision.)

“We don’t have an exact timeline from them about when [the recommendation] will be made, and that’s something we’ve been urging,” Hernandez said. “As much transparency as possible is the goal.” In the Gazette, Kelly said the lack of timeline is deliberate, ensuring that the review committee doesn’t rush to a decision: “We want to move as swiftly as we can, but ultimately it will take as long as it needs to ensure a careful and thoughtful review.”

One criticism sometimes leveled at movements to remove names or symbols is that such actions erase history. But for those involved in the Winthrop case, the denaming request has been a meaningful way to reckon with the House’s history, not hide it: “The strength of engagement that a denaming and renaming process requires,” Curtis said, “actually brings the history into the forefront and into a community dialogue, as we’re seeing right now.” Students say they hope this engagement will continue even after the committee completes its review. “If the decision is just to contextualize, I think students should be a part of designing [the contextualization],” Martin-Smith said—whether as artwork, a wall in the House, or in another form. “Students should be at the center of redefining this legacy, and I think that should happen no matter what the recommendation is.”

Read more articles by Nina Pasquini

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