Editor's Note: Parts of this article have been edited to remove statements that are no longer factually accurate.
The Race & Racism at the University of Richmond has been given a new name and a new structure.
Now named the Race & Memory Project, it was brought out from the School of Arts and Sciences and institutionalized as part of the larger university.
The Race & Racism Project was originally created as a two-year pilot program, Irina Rogova, former archivist for the project wrote in an email.
“The Race & Racism at UR Project came about after a series of 2014 discussions on the ways UR could become an institution that centers racial justice,” Rogova wrote. “It was clear that students of color did not see themselves in UR’s history and traditions.”
In fall 2015, rhetoric and communication studies professor Nicole Maurantonio taught the course Digital Memory & the Archive, where students explored UR’s archives – housed by the Virginia Baptist Historical Society – to find and show stories of people of color at UR, Rogova wrote.
Following this, Maurantonio led a group of faculty and staff to propose a pilot of the Race & Racism Project, Rogova wrote, adding that she came on as project archivist in July 2016 initially on a two-year contract. Victoria Charles, ‘16, worked as a post-baccalaureate fellow for the project from August 2016-2017.
The pilot project ran for three years – from 2016 to 2019 – funded by the School of Arts and Sciences. In its tenure, the project and its contributors combed through UR’s history, building a digital collection that included information such as that of the first black residential student on campus, resistance to integration, racism in fraternities and minstrel shows.
The restructuring and renaming of the three-year pilot came as a result of recommendations from University President Ronald Crutcher’s Presidential Commission on University History and Identity in June 2019, Rogova wrote.
The recommendations did not call for a project archivist, leading to Rogova’s departure from her position at the end of August 2019.
Jeff Legro, executive vice president and provost, later appointed Maurantonio – who is a member of the commission – as coordinator for the project for the 2019-2020 academic year, Rogova wrote. And the project’s budget is in the Provost’s Office for now, Legro wrote in an email.
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June 2019 was always the scheduled end date for the Race & Race Project pilot, Rogova said. Leading up to that, Rogova and Maurantonio were asked to submit a report by mid-December 2018 to Patrice Rankine, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, proposing pathways to institutionalize the project.
Rankine then sent the report up to Legro, who “ultimately deferred the decision to the President’s Commission,” Rogova wrote.
Legro said that the name change had allowed for the inclusion of more intersectional identities and different communities that “may have not felt like their histories are fully represented in our institutional story.” But the heart of the project will still be based around combating racism, he said.
"I think the idea was that calling it 'Race and Memory' would be a better connector to the possibilities of engaging past and present in the exercise and effort to allow for memories of others who have been excluded from our history over time," Legro said.
The changes to the project come with the offering of more courses this spring related to institutional history and the work of the Race & Memory Project, Legro said. These courses will be housed in a range of departments, such as “Slavery and Freedom in Early America” in history and the first year seminar “Capitalism and its Discontents.”
Reception to changes
The name change to the Race & Memory Project has been met with mixed responses.
“I think the name change is a positive thing,” senior Jennifer Munnings, a summer 2017 research fellow for the project, wrote in an email. “The Project already addressed issues besides race and now I think it makes it more open and inclusive. It opens up the floor to more exploration and research on other identities besides racial ones that were previously excluded on this campus.”
To junior Gabby Kiser, a summer research fellow for the project in 2019, the name change was counterintuitive to the project's goals.
“To me, the change to Race and Memory shows some avoidance of what we are trying to attack with the project,” Kiser said.
Shira Greer, a 2019 summer fellow, said that she wondered whether the new name may be seen as a “softening” of the project but that she had not felt that way.
“No, I don't think so,” Greer said. “And I think everyone who's been involved with the project is really committed to making sure that the core of the project stays the same, that we continue to tell the truth about this university, and tell it to the greater community in hopes of moving forward and creating a better future for the university. So, none of the work will be changing.”
Senior Catherine Franceski, who worked on the Race & Racism Project in summers 2017 and 2018, said she had been told the name change “was supposed to reflect the new larger mission of the project to include more classes and to become more integrated into the UR curriculum.”
She said she thought the Race & Memory Project was a more fitting name.
“I was told as part of the new Race & Memory Project that the name not only reflected integrating it more into the Richmond curriculum for classes students take but also that it’s more broad in terms of expanding it to more issues like LGBT topics, it stretches further than the scope of Race & Racism,” Franceski said. “I had studied Westhampton traditions from a gender view on campus with the project. The language is more accurate of what the project is doing.”
The former Race & Racism Project documented not only matters of race in UR’s history but also matters regarding Westhampton College traditions, Lost Cause ideology and Title IX controversies, according to its website.
With the restructuring came changes in personnel as well. The commission’s recommendations did not call for a project archivist, Rogova wrote.
Rogova was first hired on a two-year contract that was later extended to June 2019 by Rankine, she wrote. After the commission’s recommendations, Rankine extended her contract further through August 2019, so that she could finish work from the summer.
As archivist, she ran the project website, coordinated the digitization of archival materials and supported student and faculty research. She also helped run the project’s blog and social media, recruit summer fellows, coordinate summer research and conduct outreach with alumni for oral histories, Rogova wrote.
“I spent three years guiding incredible students who found roots for their own interests and life experience in this work,” Rogova wrote. “I witnessed these students grow and prosper and use their experience with the project to obtain acceptance to graduate school, internships at the Smithsonian, employment at museums, and more."
“When I found out my position would be eliminated, I was deeply saddened to be leaving UR and all of the students I’ve had the privilege to know and work with. I share concerns around both the renaming and the project’s sustainability without full-time staff support and oversight.”
UR is currently not looking to hire another project archivist, Legro said. The commission recommended that UR’s archival set-up with the Virginia Baptist Historical Society be straightened out first, he said.
Members of the commission recommended “moving the University Archives out of the VBHS while simultaneously preserving and deepening collaboration between the two institutions,” according to the recommendations.
“This is a year when we're focused on public history,” Legro said. “The archivist question is open moving forward depending on what we figure out with the archives, what we think are our needs in this project, what comes up, what we learn from this year.”
Some of the responsibilities formerly handled by Rogova will be taken on by Maurantonio and students, said Rogova.
The goal this year is not to have one specific person working on these project tasks but rather to build them into UR’s ongoing operations and departments, Legro said.
"That makes it part of the culture,” Legro said. “It's not someone covering that hole in the culture. And it makes it just more robust and again, just part of what we do, not an add-on."
News of Rogova’s departure from the project has been met with sadness from former and current project contributors.
“I think good things are still going on with the project, we are trying to make it not that big of a change, but we all miss Irina,” Kiser said. “I grew close to her over the summer. She was so important to the project, there is definitely damage done by releasing her.”
Others said they too had recognized Rogova’s contributions to the former project.
“I thought she was a great resource for all students and taught us so much about racism on a national scale, state and local scale and within the university,” Franceski said. “She knew so much about the history of the school and she knew exactly where to go in the archives of VBHS to find different pieces of information. It’s sad seeing her go because she was such a great person to work with and such a great mentor and resource for students.”
Munnings echoed this sentiment.
“I will miss her energy and constant encouragement,” Munnings wrote. “Irina was always a strong advocate for students. She would push us to be our best and support any projects that we could come up with.”
Legro said that the project was a work in progress.
“It's not like it's more from a hardened project into another hardened project,” Legro said. “We're kind of trying to feel our way forward in terms of what is the level of student interest, what's the level of faculty interest. And if we have student and faculty engagement in this, we want to try to find a way to continue that.
“If it's producing things that are good to the learning process, to our education, to our community, we want to feed that.”
Contact managing editor Arrman Kyaw at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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