Almost a year after Harvard released a landmark report detailing the University’s ties to slavery, student activists are calling for the denaming of Winthrop House.
More than 200 Harvard affiliates have signed a petition demanding the denaming of Winthrop to kickstart an official denaming request. Organized by a group of more than 30 students — including members of the Generational African American Students Association and Natives at Harvard College — the petition states the two John Winthrops for whom the house was named were “instrumental in creating, maintaining, and defending” slavery.
The earlier John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and a Harvard overseer, enslaved at least seven people and ordered 17 prisoners in the Pequot War to be sold as slaves. His descendant, also named John Winthrop, owned two enslaved individuals and served as acting president at Harvard for a year.
“John Winthrop House carries as its namesake and crest the burden of a century of African slavery and Indigenous massacre,” the petition reads.
Clyve Lawrence ’25, one of the leaders of the project and a Crimson editorial editor, worked with a team of five students to research both John Winthrops following the release of Harvard’s long-awaited report on its ties to slavery. Lawrence said the team examined primary sources including the first Winthrop’s diary, as well as secondary sources, to learn about the figures’ actions.
The team’s research found that Governor John Winthrop helped legalize slavery in Massachusetts, while his descendant allowed students to prepare defenses of slavery at Harvard’s 1773 Commencement ceremony.
“We can easily argue that Winthrop should be denamed because those values do not match the mission of the University today,” Lawrence said.
Harvard spokesperson Rachael Dane declined to comment on student demands to dename Winthrop.
Kiersten B. Hash ’25, the political action chair of GAASA, said group members reached out to Lawrence and the team researching the John Winthrops to make denaming the house into a GAASA project.
“There were conversations with me and the other board members who had just been elected, as well as the general generational African American community, about how we want Harvard to address their legacy of slavery because there was so much damning information that came out,” Hash said.
Hash said the team is in the “home stretch” of finishing the denaming request, which will be submitted through the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Process for Denaming Spaces, Programs, or other Entities. The FAS deadline for requests this academic year is March 1, 2023.
If the denaming request is rejected, then a petition to dename Winthrop cannot be submitted for the next five years except in “extraordinary circumstances,” per the FAS policy.
In a Tuesday email to Winthrop residents, faculty deans Stephen N. Chong and Kiran Gajwani acknowledged the petition and wrote they are “in the process of arranging a series of discussions” regarding the “critically important” topic.
“This is a difficult but important conversation for us to have in Winthrop, and part of a larger conversation that is taking place throughout the University and beyond,” the deans wrote. “We recognize that these are painful and challenging issues, and we are grateful for your patience and participation as we engage in these conversations as a community.”
NAHC member Ashley E. Dawn ’26, who worked on writing and distributing the petition and planning an upcoming demonstration, said she became involved because of the importance of “reconciling with Massachusetts’ colonial past.”
“I really think that Massachusetts has a long way to go in recognizing and correcting the colonial history that we have — that is deeply intertwined with our strong sense of American patriotism,” Dawn said.
Dawn said she believes “denaming is a very good place to start” in acknowledging Harvard’s ties to slavery and treatment of indigenous peoples.
Lawrence said he was “shocked” when he first read Harvard’s report on its history of slavery.
“Learning about these men owning slaves, enslaving people, and how Harvard kind of brushed over that in a lot of places just really surprised me,” he said.
Harvard’s landmark report on the school’s ties to slavery also found that Mather House, Leverett House, the Dudley Community, Wigglesworth Hall, and Stoughton Hall were named for affiliates who owned slaves or whose relatives owned slaves.
In 2020, more than 300 Harvard affiliates signed a petition to rename Mather, but the house’s then-faculty deans said there were no plans to do so.
While Lawrence said the primary goal of the project is to dename Winthrop, he emphasized that denaming is “not just removing or renaming.”
“It is a specific process of contextualization and acknowledgment,” he said. “I also hope that it starts a conversation within the student body and within the broader community about what it means to name spaces after people — what it means to reckon with Harvard’s legacy of slavery.”
—Staff writer Madeleine A. Hung can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Joyce E. Kim can be reached at email@example.com.