Black Students Association says ‘legacy’ needs ‘correcting’
A Harvard University committee is considering a call from several student groups to rename the John Winthrop House due to its namesakes’ connections to slavery.
The undergraduate student dormitory was named after Massachusetts Bay Colony Gov. John Winthrop and his great-great grandson Professor John Winthrop, a pioneer in mathematics and astronomy in early America. Both also owned slaves, according to the “Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery” report.
Elyse Martin-Smith, political action chair of Harvard’s Black Students Association, told The College Fix in a phone interview this month that her association wants to see the house renamed because of the Winthrops’ connections to slavery.
Demands to change the name initiated last year with two other student organizations, the Generational African American Students Association and the Natives at Harvard College, The Fix reported at the time.
Martin-Smith, who lives in Winthrop House, said the Black Students Association “supports the efforts of GAASA and NaHC,” and “it was a bit dismaying that students had to put in as much effort as it did to bring this to life.”
Martin-Smith also elaborated on the significance that house membership holds for many Harvard students, saying whenever a student introduces themselves, they usually include their house. Winthrop House is one of 12 residential houses for undergrads at Harvard.
“Our houses at Harvard are a big part of peoples’ personal identification,” Martin-Smith told The Fix.
Martin-Smith said the Black Students Association would happily become involved in the renaming process and “correcting this legacy” if the university decides to remove the Winthrop name. However, she said renaming typically gets punted to donors.
A committee made up of faculty with historical expertise and experience with the House system and led by philosophy Professor Sean Kelly is considering the request to dename the Winthrop House, according to The Harvard Gazette.
Former Harvard President Claudine Gay, Dean Hopi Hoekstra, and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences formed the committee last year in response to a student-led petition, the report states.
The Fix contacted Kelly twice in the past month to ask about the committee’s next steps and to what extent the Winthrops’ engagement in slavery would have to be for the house to be denamed, but he did not respond.
In a November interview with The Gazette, Kelly said part of the history that the committee will be reviewing is whether “Professor Winthrop played a role in either directly or indirectly advocating for slavery in the mid-1700s in Massachusetts and at Harvard.”
Kelly also told the student newspaper that the proposal has three potential outcomes: nothing changes, the name is kept but contextualized, or the house is denamed.
Professor John Winthrop was the Hollis Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy at Harvard from 1739 to 1779. His ancestor Gov. John Winthrop governed the Massachusetts Bay Colony and is known for his sermon, “Dreams of a City on a Hill.”
Along with the Winthrops owning slaves, students advocating for the name removal expressed concerns about the governor’s involvement in the Pequot War.
The armed battle between the Pequot tribe and colonists “culminated with the 1638 Treaty of Hartford, which outlawed the Pequot language and name, seized tribal lands, and disbanded the surviving Pequot, who were given to the victors as spoils of war or sold into slavery,” according to ConnecticutHistory.org.
Not everyone supports the denaming proposal.
Contacted by The Fix about the proposal, Mary Grabar, historian and author of “Debunking the 1619 Project,” said she thinks the committee should keep the Winthrop name.
“It will be difficult to find any figures of historical significance who did NOT own slaves at the time,” she told The Fix via email.
Grabar said contextualizing or denaming the house, “will simply invite further ahistorical attention on what is in reality a political project: the attempt to wipe away American history and founding principles.”