The Power of a Name

I’ve often longed for a name that could connect me to my family, to a history I could share in and be proud of. Unfortunately, for myself and many other descendants of enslaved Americans, this is a distant fantasy. My own last name, Corlette, isn’t a very strong connection to my ancestry or family. My father is the only other person I know who shares it. I can’t say I’m a part of the broader “Corlette family,” and it hasn’t taught me anything about my part in an extensive history or story. 

While I celebrate Generational African American culture and identity, I still mourn the loss of knowing my African ancestry, understanding the full breakdown of my mixed ethnic background, and knowing the stories of the family members who came before me, many of which were stripped away by the brutal institution of slavery.

When I first came to Harvard, I was struck by the history it held. Some of America’s most prolific academics and greatest leaders once attended the very school I do now. At first, it was awe-inspiring to be able to say I was a part of this great history, a legacy I could trace back much further than my own ancestry.

Upon reflection, however, I’ve found this history to be much less extensive than I had once thought. Sure, I can find the names and biographies of presidents, senators, authors, and scientists all around me. But women, Generational African Americans, and mixed-race people, like me, are much harder to find. It is far easier to find buildings named after White men with devastatingly harmful legacies, such as Agassiz Theater or Mather House, than after a woman or a person of color. It is hard to feel a sense of belonging within this great history when it’s not one I can see my entire self in or be proud of.

Upon entering my sophomore year, I excitedly moved into Winthrop House, one of the 12 upperclassmen houses at the College. Soon after, however, I learned about the two John Winthrops after whom the house was named. The first was a founding member and former Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He had an authoritarian governing style, opposed democratic governance, and oversaw the genocide and trafficking of the Native Americans in the region. In 1641, he signed the first law in all of North America that legally sanctioned slavery. The second John Winthrop served as President of Harvard twice and, like his predecessor, enslaved people while publicly defending the institution.

Knowing the legacy of my house, my excitement to live there subsided. I feel very uncomfortable knowing that, decades after my ancestors were freed, I’m still living in a house honoring an enslaver.

This year, the Generational African American Students Association, in collaboration with Natives at Harvard College, began the movement to “Dename Winthrop,” petitioning the University to remove the name from the house. While the movement gained widespread support, there were also critics. As with many movements to end the reverence of America’s colonial history, people complained that a removal would be an erasure of history. Others felt that the name didn’t hold much significance, and denaming Winthrop House would be too much hassle for minimal reward.

These arguments are incredibly harmful: A bit of trouble should not be too much to ask to increase students’ comfort, particularly those who have been marginalized by the University in the past. It is unexplainable that Harvard would expect students whose ancestors have faced such devastating trauma to live in a building that remembers and reveres those who perpetuated it.

The arguments’ shortcomings extend past their harm, though — they are also incorrect. Harvard has a deep and well-documented history, deeply intertwined with the history of colonialism and slavery: The removal of a building’s name would do little to erase it. In fact, it would be nearly impossible for Harvard to rid itself of its role in this history. But we must recognize that names do matter, and historical names still affect our lives today.

I first learned of the power that names hold when I was in seventh grade. My school completed its construction of a new arts wing, named the Gordon Parks Arts Hall. Gordon Parks was an American artist, well known for his photography, whose work dealt with race, poverty, and social justice. During the grand opening events, Parks’ work was put on display, and I learned about both his life and his art. For the next six years, I passed his work hung in the hallways and learned his values in the classroom. I culminated my senior year with an individual research and art project on civil rights leaders, combining his passion for social justice and art into my high school capstone project. Before seventh grade, I knew little about Parks beyond his name. Now, I can picture my favorite work of his, tell you about his life, and present a project I completed with him as my inspiration. His name meant something to me and my classmates, and by honoring Parks’ legacy, that building altered the course of my artistic journey.

Now in college, I spend my time at the Institute of Politics in the Harvard Kennedy School, named after one of Winthrop House’s most well-known alumni. As I walk into the building, I pass large red banners declaring “Ask what you can do,” a famous quote from President Kennedy’s inaugural address. This phrase reminds me why I’m there and why I came to Harvard in the first place — to serve my community. Kennedy’s influence extends beyond this daily reminder. His legacy is a frequent topic of conversation with my classmates at the IOP, and I have learned much more about him than I ever knew before, even writing a final paper on his presidency for one of my classes at the Kennedy School. 

The Kennedy name has already had an impact on my Harvard experience. Kennedy has been enshrined at the IOP; his work inspires Harvard’s next generation of public servants. In his commitment to civil rights, he is certainly a worthy role model for many. But he is still a prominent White man whose image reflects those of almost every other Harvard building namesake, including Winthrop. The university must begin to uphold other worthy role models, ones that every student can see themselves in.

As a student studying government, with a particular interest in local government, I should be inspired to live in a house named after one of this country’s first governors and a respected lawyer. Yet it is clear that I can’t look up to either of the John Winthrops. If I am to approach my study of government “Asking what I can do” for my community, I cannot be surrounded by people who had an utter lack of respect for my ancestors.

There are far better role models for me to look up to as I navigate my four years at Harvard. However, they are not represented in Harvard’s buildings. Every single undergraduate house is named after a White person. The vast majority are named after men, with only one house, Currier, being explicitly named after a woman (the rest are named after a couple or family). 

The Winthrop name not only imposes harm on students, but the Winthrops’ legacy is taking the place of a more deserving name, one that inspires hard work, creative thinking, and social responsibility. Students studying sociology and history could be motivated by the legacy of W.E.B. Du Bois, a civil rights activist and the first African American recipient of a Ph.D. from Harvard. Aspiring lawyers and diplomats could push through difficult assignments in a building named after Richard T. Greener, Harvard’s first Black graduate. Young scientists could learn from Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, the first woman to be a full professor and department head. For future educators, there is Alberta Virginia Scott’s legacy as the first Black Radcliffe Graduate. If given the chance, each of these people in the university’s history has the potential to spark passion in today’s students.

Harvard has a long and well-documented history, and if I am going to be a part of this history, I hope it will be one where we honor legacies we can be proud of. We do not need to cling to a past that does not serve us now. This does not mean erasing the bad, shameful parts of this history, but owning up to the role Harvard has played in America’s traumatic past. We begin this process by uprooting the remnants of colonialism and replacing them with the stories of the people worth remembering in Harvard’s history. They can serve as better models to cultivate Harvard’s contemporary values of knowledge, service, and responsibility in its student body. 

As someone who knows very little about their own name, I can attest that history matters, legacies matter, and names matter. I may never get to learn more about where my ancestors came from; the erasure of their history is one of the ills that the John Winthrops helped perpetuate. But now that I’m a part of the broader history of this institution, I have the opportunity to learn from those who had the privilege to be remembered, and who used that privilege to fight against injustice. I hope to use my education to do the same, but I will not do this on my own. I will do it by following the path set out by those before me, those whose legacies we must honor now.

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