Isaac Royall, Jr. (1719-1781), bequeathed some of his wealth to Harvard College to establish a chair in medicine or law, leaving it to Harvard to decide between the two. Harvard chose law. The first Royall Chair – the first law professorship at Harvard – was not filled until 1815, when Isaac Parker undertook to teach part-time.
Royall’s wealth was built on the labor of enslaved people. Royall and his father listed among their possessions 64 human beings – more slaves than any other household in Massachusetts. The Royalls flourished on this exploitation: Robert Feke’s portrait of Isaac Royall, Jr., his wife, daughter, sister, and sister-in-law, which hangs in this room, boasts his prosperity.
Royall fled to Nova Scotia three days before the Battle of Lexington. He wrote to his friend Simon Tufts with instructions to sell slaves to raise money for his exile in London. In the same will that granted lands to Harvard, he offered emancipation to his slave Belinda (later, Belinda Sutton, freedwoman), promising to pay her support. She had to petition the Massachusetts legislature six times to receive her due.
Harvard Law professor and United States Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story praised Parker – the first Royall Professor – as “a mind with sufficient knowledge of the old law [who] was yet not a slave to its forms” – as the “free spirit” needed to teach law for a newly free country. But law had a dual role in the world shared by Parker, Story and Belinda Sutton, emancipating some while enslaving others. Sutton's first petition, submitted during the Revolution, observed that leaders of the breakaway colony sought for themselves “that freedom which the Almighty Father intended for all the human race,” while “by the Laws of the Land [she was] denied the employment of one morsel of that immense wealth, apart whereof hath been accumulated by her own industry, and the whole augmented by her servitude.”
- Janet Halley, Royall Professor of Law, Harvard Law School