Editor's Note: The following opinion piece is the first of a three-part series -- one that its writers hope will address the upcoming changes in how the University of Richmond remembers and recognizes its racial history, as well as provide a platform for students to discuss what inclusivity should look like. It is addressed to the Presidential Commission on University History and Identity, President Crutcher, deans Boehman, Genoni and Rankine, the Board of Trustees, UR's alumni network and current students and faculty members.
During my time as a student in the Humanities Fellows program and in the Digital Memory & The Archive course, Irina Rogova introduced me to a world of nontraditional scholarship and research methodologies that can be transformative and healing.
Irina's style of teaching was to shake our expectations of what academic work had to look like, allowing us to create academic spaces that were personal and represented the type of community we wanted to be. Not only did she connect us with the work of activist archivists, such as Jarrett Drake, Ashley Stevens and Terry Cook, but she also demonstrated that this type of work could be done at an institution like the University of Richmond.
The final defining principle in the June 2019 report from the Presidential Commission on University History and Identity states, “This history must convey its discoveries through means both traditional and innovative so that all who follow will have a clearer understanding of this place and of their role in its still-unfolding story.”
The Race & Racism at UR Project has implemented innovative contextualization and documentation strategies since its creation in 2014.
University president Ronald A. Crutcher’s New York Times opinion piece “When a Black Student Plays Along With the K.K.K. Joke, What’s a College to Do?” implies that the Race & Racism at UR Project’s role in uncovering university history has been to simply flip through old yearbooks.
Similarly, the commission’s report fails to recognize the longevity and creativity of the Race & Racism Project.
The project’s fellows and students in the Digital Memory & The Archive course have been carefully choosing research topics, investigating the resources held by the Virginia Baptist Historical Society and Center for Baptist Heritage Studies, interpreting historical evidence and publishing their work in the form of articles, podcasts and digital and physical exhibitions.
This process should not be undermined or undervalued by the language used by UR’s president or members of the commission.
The work of the Race & Racism at UR project aims to be radical and retributive, and it is only through the efforts of the intentional community built around this project that this is possible. It has also taken time to build student trust and to build relationships with the greater Richmond activist community.
When I was a first-year at UR, I attended the February 2014 Brown Bag discussion titled “Race, History, and the University of Richmond: Beginning the Conversation.” It was at this event that the Race & Racism Project was first discussed on a public platform.
When I attended the discussion, it was clear to me that this project was truly at its beginning. It was unbelievable and unacceptable to me as a Richmond native that UR would claim no direct connection to the city’s history of white supremacy and racial injustice. Assuredly, there were stories that needed to be uncovered and told.
Irina was hired to be a leader and facilitator in this process. Since its beginnings in 2014, the project has established a large base of engaged staff members and students.
As the Race & Racism Project has grown, so has the inclusivity of UR's past and present.
Irina has been instrumental in creating the type of space where students are equipped with the technical skills and academic grounding to conduct this critical work.
However, as students, we were always acutely aware that Irina's job position was not securely funded. There was uncertainty each year as to whether Irina would receive the necessary support from UR to continue to be an exceptional mentor.
This was unsettling for many reasons. It demonstrated to students that the work of the Race & Racism Project was not truly valued, that the archival skills we developed could be undervalued by future employers and that UR did not value a person who made our campus a more inclusive community.
Thanks to the careful stewardship of both Irina and Nicole Maurantonio, the project has grown over the past five years. They have put in countless hours of emotional labor to build trust and recognizability in the project.
The plan to rename the project and replace its core leadership would completely disrupt its power and legacy.
Madeleine Jordan-Lord is a 2018 graduate of the history and American studies departments, member of the Race & Racism at UR Project and Bonner Scholar. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.