Following a student-led movement and several lively discussions, the Westhampton College Government Association and Richmond College Student Government Association passed a joint resolution Wednesday, April 3, insisting that the university change the names of Ryland and Freeman halls, and released an official statement on April 4 mirroring this intent.
Senators Caroline Schiavo, junior, and AJ Polcari, sophomore, sponsored the joint resolution, “On Changing the Narrative: Regarding Building Names,” which faced a turbulent start when introduced at the joint student government meeting on March 27.
“The people [other senators] were worried that we were erasing history and not doing it justice,” WCGA President Monica Stack said. “I think it was more that we were on the same page but there were a lot of people in the room.”
A smaller, ad hoc committee met on March 31 to fine-tune the language of the resolution and address concerns brought up during the first meeting. The new draft of the joint resolution included the stipulation that context regarding the buildings’ former names, legacy of the people they were named after and the reason for the name changes should be preserved and publicly displayed.
Robert Ryland’s legacy, according to the University of Richmond’s website, is that of an esteemed minister, the first superintendent of the Virginia Baptist Seminary and the first president of Richmond College.
The university’s website also lauds Douglas Freeman, the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, for donating $1 million for university buildings.
The joint resolution, however, calls to attention a history of these two men that the website does not include.
“Douglas Southall Freeman and Dr. Robert Ryland both have legacies intrinsically linked to the entrenchment and maintenance of white supremacy; the former a segregationist newspaperman and ‘Lost Cause’ proponent, and the latter an owner of enslaved Africans,” the resolution states.
Students discovered a sign in front of Ryland Hall on April 1 that shared a similarly critical description of the first president of Richmond College. The sign displays the shape of a Tudor rose, and the letters “rs” highlighted in red each time they appear.
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This led students to suspect that the sign was made by members of the Richmond Society, an all-male secret society. The Richmond Society has not been tied to any on-campus activity since 2017, when students found a Richmond Society banner near Westhampton Lake.
“I think the sign in front of the building really woke people up if not incited more awareness,” sophomore TJ Tann said. “And if the sign is true, then you have to reckon with those facts and it’s hard to just ignore it. It incited a lot of movement.”
And for the two separate April 3 student government meetings, Tann along with several like-minded students helped organize a student demonstration supporting the resolution, by sitting in on the meetings, after the resolution faced resistance at the first.
“If you have an instance where you have to face the people you are resisting, that changes the dynamic of the situation,” Tann said.
Kristen Starks, first-year, created a GroupMe chat after attending a community discussion on April 2 hosted by Senator Cherelle Cotton.
The GroupMe was meant to inform and organize people for the demonstration. Three hours later, the group grew to over 100 members, and it reached 142 members at its peak.
“I really want students to be involved in this process,” Starks said.
Ten students attended the 5:30 p.m. WCGA meeting to show their support. During the open discussion, Tann read portions of an op-ed he wrote to be published on The Collegian.
“My hope is that the university realizes how these names inflict pain on those marginalized,” Tann read.
Several students voiced their support for this resolution and were met with snaps of approval by the WCGA senators.
Among WCGA senators, questions of logistics were raised but no one audibly opposed the resolution. WCGA senators voted unanimously to pass the resolution.
Student demonstrators then walked to Whitehurst for the 7:00 p.m. RCSGA meeting and were soon joined by WCGA members.
Here, the broad language of the resolution was scrutinized or outright opposed by RCSGA senators.
RCSGA President-elect Mike Laposata, junior, defended the broad language of the resolution saying, “We need to bring forward the university’s history. By leaving it open-ended in this way, it allows the president’s commission to be unique and do things that maybe we didn’t think of. I think this is good with regards to a future change.”
First-year Kevin Spear was the only senator to vocally oppose the resolution.
“I don’t think the building names should be changed,” Spear said. “To throw up a plaque would be to throw away the history. Context is needed, but we don’t need to change the names.”
Senator Jesse Amankwaah, sophomore, responded: “I would implore you to think about representation. A lot of people weren’t for taking the names down, but when it comes to representing underrepresented groups, their voices will always be in the minority.”
Students were given 10 minutes to contribute, during which Tann and other demonstrators voiced their support for the resolution and were met with similar snaps of approval by senators.
Once the 10-minute discussion portion passed, a vocal vote was called. The vote went 26-3 in support of passing the joint resolution.
RCSGA President Tyler York closed the meeting with tears in his eyes.
“I have never been more proud of this body than I am right now,” York said. “We are doing real change.”
When asked what the next steps were for the resolution, Stack replied, “The next bit is seeing what the Presidential Commission for University History and Identity and the President’s Advisory Committee for Making Excellence Inclusive write in their reports. A few of those reports are due over the summer, so we are expecting it to be well-received among those committees.
“We really feel like this should be a campus-wide discussion. I want to make sure that part of moving this resolution forward is that community engagement portion.”
Contact news contributor Daniel Williams at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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