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Harvard students demand Winthrop House be renamed, call name ‘harmful’

A group of student activists at Harvard University are calling for the school’s Winthrop House to be renamed, launching a petition and holding a protest in recent weeks to lobby campus leaders to comply with their demands.

Winthrop House, one of 12 residential houses for undergrads at Harvard, is named after both the elder John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and his great, great grandson, John Winthrop, a former Harvard president from the 1770s who is also considered the first American astronomer.

They both owned slaves, and student protesters argue that because they supported slavery their name should be wiped from campus.

According to a petition launched by the activists, the two were “instrumental in creating, maintaining, and defending” slavery, the Harvard Crimson reported Feb. 23.

The petition argues the two Winthrops’ values “are entirely antithetical to the current mission of Harvard College, creating a harmful environment that undermines the ability of our community to participate in the work of the University.”

Harvard University’s media affairs department declined to comment when asked by The College Fix on the future of the Winthrop House name.

Meanwhile, Harvard students also protested in the dining hall during dinner to advance their cause, the Crimson reported Feb. 27.

Student Clyve Lawerence, who is helping to lead the charge to change the name, gave a speech focusing on the histories of the two Winthrops and their ties to slavery as students ate their food, the Crimson reported.

The petition is led by two student organizations, the Generational African American Students Association of Harvard and Natives at Harvard College, who say they feel that the namesakes of Winthrop House represent ideas and actions that would be “abhorrent today.”

The petition to dename the building comes roughly a year after Harvard released a report outlining the university’s ties to slavery. In the report, John Winthrop’s history is more clearly outlined, with many details not mentioned in Harvard’s biography of him nor under the history of Winthrop House webpage.

The Massachusetts Historical Society holds the collection of “Winthrop Family Papers,” which outlines the Winthrop family’s “rich and critical record of colonial settlement in New England and the events that unfolded in the decades that followed.”

In many of the documents, the Winthrops’ ties to slavery can be found, and Harvard students cite many primary sources such as the elder Winthrop’s diary to learn more about the history of the Winthrops and their influence.

The process of denaming buildings at Harvard is outlined in a 2021 university report that focuses on examining the values represented by the names of their buildings and assessing whether the values of the namesakes align with the current values of the university.

“The names Harvard uses cannot be separated from the values the University seeks to model and embrace,” stated the report, concluding that “individuals’ names or representations might be removed from Harvard buildings, spaces, programs, or professorships ‘in view of their past advocacy or support of activities that many members of our community would today find abhorrent.’”

MORE: Harvard to explore renaming *almost everything* named for historical figures on campus

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About the Author
Emilee Speier -- Regent University