When the University of Richmond announced this week that he would remove the names of slave owners, eugenicists and other known racists and white supremacists from six buildings on campus, some black students and former students were caught off guard.
An elder called it a “pleasant surprise”. A student leader on campus said, “It was a shock, to be quite honest.”
Their reactions reflected the low expectations of many in and around the private University of Virginia regarding the efforts and potential results of a commission formed a year ago to consider how and for whom campus buildings should be named. Just a year ago, university leaders refused to rename two buildings named after the Reverend Robert Ryland and Douglas Southall-Freeman, despite repeated pleas from some students and faculty to do so.
The commission was created in response to controversy over the decision, and the body promised to “[undertake] a thorough examination of naming issues, seeking to involve every member of the university community in the process. This published a list of “naming principles” last Friday, and the university’s board of trustees and president, Kevin Hallock, announced the news of the name removals on Monday.
“Ultimately, the call to rename not just two buildings, but four additional buildings, speaks volumes about the efforts to bring a more open culture to this university,” said Christopher Wiggins, a 2003 graduate who had been engaged with university officials. in the last year’s name change discussion.
However, Wiggins added: “It will take a lot more to regain the trust of the black community.”
The decision to remove the buildings’ names caps a three-year battle with university administrators, waged by black students and alumni and non-black allies and supporters, to honor prominent figures in the history of the university whose heritage is rooted in slavery, segregation and racial violence.
“We recognize that not everyone in our community will agree with these decisions. And we recognize that the University would not exist today without the efforts of some whose names we have removed,” Hallock said in a message Monday to students, alumni and others affiliated with the university and co-signed by board of directors. “Ultimately, the Board has concluded that the decisions outlined above are the best course of action for the University.
“Across our community, we heard clearly that an ongoing commitment to advancing diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging must be a central part of our university and its culture. We share that commitment and believe these decisions are consistent with that goal,” Hallock’s post said.
A university spokesperson who was asked by administrators for additional comment referred to the campus-wide message.
The university’s announcement is accompanied by a list of “naming principles” produced and recommended by the commission and accepted in principle by the board of trustees. Another commission is to be formed by this fall to decide exactly how to honor people by naming buildings or structures after them. For now, buildings whose names have been removed will not have namesakes.
The battle over building names came to a head a year ago when then-university president Robert Crutcher scrapped a much-maligned plan to add the name of a local newspaper publisher and civil rights activist, John Mitchell, to a dorm named for Southall-Freeman, eugenicist and segregationist. Students were also fighting to remove the name of Ryland, a university founder and slave owner. The name change demands were first made in a 2019 joint resolution by student government leaders.
Buildings and statues that honor people with racist pasts were already polarizing issues on many college campuses, especially those in the South. But after the 2020 police killing of George Floyd and subsequent nationwide protests for racial justice, buildings and monuments of problematic historical figures have become beacons for campus culture wars and sources of conflict across the world. country.
Many college campuses have since or are still undergoing soul-searching similar to that of the University of Richmond.
A recent controversy took place at William Peace University, a private institution in Raleigh, North Carolina. The university commissioned a study in 2020, following Floyd’s murder, and a summary of the study report revealed that the college’s namesake owned slaves, that the main building on campus was built by slaves, and that the yearbook was devoted to a year of a protagonist of the Wilmington massacre in 1898.
The University of Alabama caused a public outcry last month after administrators announced that the name of Autherine Lucy, the first black student to enroll in the university, would be added to a building named for Bibb. Graves, former governor and leader of the Ku Klux Klan. The state institution reversed its decision eight days after the backlash.
The commission created at the University of Richmond after his nomination gaffe last year sought to build consensus on campus and contacted, surveyed and held listening sessions to provide opportunities for more than 7,500 students, alumni, parents, teachers and others. The result was the amazing choice of delete the names of four other buildings than originally planned, all of which also had troubled namesakes.
And university leaders wasted no time in making the changes.
“They said it would take effect immediately, but we thought it would be a few days,” said Christian Herald, a freshman and president of the university’s Black Student Alliance. “But in an hour or two [on Monday]they were gone, taped, the plates removed.
Herald was not a university student when student government organizations passed the resolution calling for the building to be renamed, nor when the renaming controversy erupted last March. But she said she witnessed much of the backlash from students, including a “disaffiliation” plan to withdraw commitment and participation in campus activities and withhold financial support from the school, when she toured the campus, and she “could see evidence of the protests.
“They would organize campus tours and then find out that the tour guides had quit in protest,” she recalls.
Campus activists have also urged community members not to refer to the building named for Southall-Freeman by name.
Herald said student protesters told their supporters, ‘Don’t give that name power.
Even seeing officials move quickly to remove the old names on Monday has not erased the memory of the long struggle to have the names of the two original buildings changed, said Shira Greer, president of the Black Student Coalition, who worked with the Black Student Alliance. over the past year to lobby for name changes and other demands from black students, faculty, alumni and supporters.
“It was a low bar, and they definitely broke it,” Greer said of the college’s nominating decision. Like the rest of the campus community, she learned about naming principles last Friday and then the announcement of name dropouts on Monday.
“Setting the principles first seemed a bit backward,” she said. “I think they did their job relatively well…I think it really came down to having people who were willing to listen, who were really active and making sure things were transparent.”
Confidence in the sincerity of the commission increased, Greer said, when a student representative — Jordyn Lofton, also a member of the Black Student Coalition — was added as a member. Lofton and Greer are among more than 600 people, spanning various races and nationalities and including students, alumni and faculty, who signed the letter of demands in March 2021, a document titled “Protect Our Web: A Statement on Black Student Welfare”.
Part of the conflict that led to the creation of the commission and the halting of the previous name change plan stemmed from contentious interactions with Richmond board member Paul Queally, the university’s president , which has previously referred to the school’s “black, brown, and regular students.” .”
The tone of Queally’s discussions of the issue, Greer said, was “rather hostile” and “really disrespectful.”
Removing the names from the two buildings, Greer said, was “just the groundwork for what we want to see at this university.”