A thorny, contentious question pulls historians in multiple directions: How should a community respond to awareness of the regrettable facts of its history? Should it honor or remove all traces of controversy? How should the public be involved in this decision-making process?
The history of the University of Richmond has taken center stage in conversations surrounding UR’s image and aspirations, with the Race and Racism project and the Presidential Commission on Institutional History and Identity in full swing.
But how are UR’s historical records kept? Who preserves relics of the past and decides which pieces of history are relevant for the campus community? What does this preservation look like on a daily basis?
Historical records, including The Collegian archives, are kept at Boatwright Memorial Library, and the Virginia Baptist Historical society serves as the official archives of the university, according to UR President Emeritus Edward Ayers.
However, how students and alumni interact with the history of the university is ever-changing. The outreach work of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections in the library, and the current presidential commemorative efforts combine to broadcast the university's image to the community and beyond.
The journey into the university’s history begins in a homey office nestled in the first floor of Boatwright Memorial Library. Lynda Kachurek, head of the Rare Books and Special Collections department for the library, discussed her day-to-day work and role in understanding the university's background.
Although the department of Rare Books and Special Collections is not the official repository of the university’s history, it does house many books owned by the library or university, Kachurek said.
"We have approximately 80 books that we know those physical items were in the library before the Civil War," Kachurek said. "When the school closed during the Civil War, the library was dispersed, so those are artifacts pertaining to the early history of the university that are in our collection."
Kachurek said the library, which did a great deal of work with the alumni office, also was home to collections donated by faculty members and alumni.
“For example, when President Ayers left the presidency [in 2015], he gave part of his presidential library," Kachurek said. "So we have books that were given to him while he was president. We have a collection that Dr. Boatwright’s granddaughter gave. It’s some of Dr. Boatwright’s personal, as well as some of his professional, items. It’s a companion collection to the official presidential collection in the [Virginia Baptist Historical Society]. A lot of our collections are related.”
A few steps away from Boatwright lies the Virginia Baptist Historical Society. Nathan Taylor, executive director of VBHS, said his institution had taken a unique perspective on the university’s history. As the repository for the official university archives, the VBHS deals with UR’s history as a Baptist seminary, among other things.
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VBHS evolved from a repository for Baptist history to a source of university history when the current university archives were established in 1981 with “eleven small boxes” of existing historical material, Taylor said in an email.
“VBHS does seek to lend unique expertise in helping the broader community to understand the Baptist origins and context of the university in earlier eras," Taylor wrote, "including documentary sources that we may hold or referrals to relevant scholarship.”
Founded in 1876 by Charles Ryland and supported by Virginia Baptists who saw the value in educated clergy, VBHS continues to allow students to view UR’s history through a Baptist lens, Taylor said.
For Taylor, a normal day at VBHS involves "helping researchers who come from a variety of different constituencies: the university, churches or denominational entities, historians, faculty from other institutions, genealogists, etc.,” he wrote.
Taylor said he hoped students would grow to understand the university’s Baptist roots, especially as they related to the broader struggle for religious freedom in the United States. During the 18th century and leading up to the adoption of the First Amendment, Baptist ministers were often persecuted and imprisoned for “disturbing the peace” or preaching without a license, he said.
These Baptists, who played a crucial role in the push for the adoption of the First Amendment, were the ancestors of the Baptists who would go on to establish UR, Taylor said.
The student awareness of this struggle “has deep relevance as we navigate the tensions of a democratic, pluralistic society that [18th-century Baptists] helped to create,” he said.
Taylor touched upon the hope of many historians at UR that students may inquire into their institution’s past. This inquiry will help students understand the forces shaping today’s conversations around identity and image, Ayers said in an email.
Ayers wrote about how, when he was president of the university, he had highlighted the university’s ties to the city and its background. Throughout his tenure, he was involved in several initiatives, including the Future of Richmond’s Past, and he continues his service on current President Ronald Crutcher’s Commission on University History and Identity, he said.
“I wish students knew more about Richmond," Ayers said. "About how it was the center of the domestic slave trade and the capital of the Confederacy and about how it was also a modern city of the South, pioneering both in industry but also in segregation. I hope students will come to the new American Civil War Museum, opening in May, to learn about those facets of our history.”
Kachurek also underscored the importance of student engagement with UR’s history, describing how her work with classes in the Rare Book Room and in the classroom helps increase awareness of our predecessors.
“Students can sort of find themselves in the past by looking at pictures and documents," Kachurek said. "One of our unique university scrapbooks is a 1920s scrapbook … So when a student -- even in the digital age of 2019 -- sees photographs of Jeter Hall in the middle of the 1920s or realizes that this student has the same problems and same issues -- about a lack of time or too much work or not enough free time -- it really makes the connection over time. There are a lot of differences, but there are some common themes.”
She stressed the need for students to visit places such as the Rare Book Room and VBHS to better understand how we can improve and build upon our past.
“I think generally overall -- I think this is campus-wide -- there is a lack of understanding about university history in general," Kachurek said. "[History] helps us understand where we are right now, but it also helps us understand how we can move forward.”
Contact senior features writer Cassie Coughlan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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