Faculty members, students, staff members and community members gathered in the Brown-Alley room Tuesday night to hear a panel present research on the University of Richmond’s history. There, a team of researchers presented their findings about the Westham Burial Ground, Robert Ryland and Douglas Freeman.
The panel was sponsored by the Richmond and Westhampton College student governments as part of their History Week programming. Westhampton College Government Association member Claire Tate opened the evening by acknowledging that the meeting was taking place on traditional land of the Powhatan people.
Panelist Lauranett Lee, visiting lecturer at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies and UR history consultant, thanked the audience for their presence in her opening statement.
“How fortunate we are to be at the University of Richmond at this time in our history when we are reassessing who we are and how we came to be,” she said.
UR hired Lee as a consultant in the fall of 2019 in response to a summer 2019 report “Making Excellence Inclusive” that committed to “conduct[ing] research to determine location of burial site for enslaved people who lived and worked on the land where UR is now located.”
Lee’s team – the fellow panelists – included Shelby Driskill, a graduate student at the School of Professional and Continuing Studies; Suzanne Slye, a 2019 graduate of SPCS; and Catherine Franceski, a senior majoring in PPEL.
Driskill followed Lee’s opening with an abbreviated presentation of her and Lee’s research over the past year. A full report of Driskill and Lee's findings was published on Dec. 28, 2019. Driskill discussed both the Westham burial ground, a site on campus where human remains were discovered in the early to mid-1900s, and the names and lives of indigenous and enslaved people who historically lived and worked on the land that UR now occupies.
Driskill said that although the report served as the formal institutional conclusion to her research on the burial ground, she intended to continue her studies.
“This information is still unfolding,” she said. “This history is still being discovered. … In that sense it’s very much open to students, to faculty, to staff, to members of the community to engage with this history and to approach it from the many different angles that it really offers.”
Driskill also said she was optimistic about finding more documents.
“In a sense, the reality of enslavement is the reality of money,” she said. “And people kept records of what they valued. And so, between the newspapers … court records, deeds, dispute over land, dispute over enslaved people, I feel like there are more records to be found.”
Carolyn Lambert, a community member who attended the meeting after reading about it in the Richmond Free Press, agreed that the research needed to continue.
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“I really feel that there’s a lot of connection here [to other parts of Richmond],” she said. “It’s just going to take a lot of investigating to put it all together.
“I’d like to have some follow up, because it’s something that’s very important, especially to the African American history.”
The panel then transitioned to a discussion on UR’s first president, Robert Ryland, and Douglas Freeman, a UR graduate who later served as a board of trustees member and rector. Both have buildings named after them on campus.
Lee reminded the audience of an April 2019 joint resolution by WCGA and RCSGA calling for UR to change the names of Ryland and Freeman halls. Ryland and Freeman “both have legacies intrinsically linked to the entrenchment and maintenance of white supremacy,” the resolution said.
“[The students] had looked at some sources,” Lee said, “but as historians, we want them to look at more. And that’s what we’re doing.”
Driskill and Slye presented research on Ryland and Freeman, respectively. Slye said she was working to understand the scope of Freeman’s influence as a writer and as editor at the Richmond News Leader for more than 34 years.
“His opinions as an editor were heard by people around the nation but also were taken in by people like presidents and military advisers,” Slye said. “So we’re looking at the amplification of his opinions.”
Freeman wrote five to six editorials a day Monday through Saturday as editor, Slye said.
“We’re trying to devise an arc of development,” she said. “Did he feel the same way in 1930 as he did in 1920?”
During the Q&A, the panelists discussed the importance of naming.
“[Naming] speaks directly to identity,” Lee said. “How an institution saw itself and how it sees itself. And how it sees the persons that it honored.”
But the panelists also emphasized how they were not in charge of drawing conclusions from their research. Instead, that will be the work of people like Keith McIntosh, UR vice president for information services, chief information officer and co-chair of the burial ground memorialization committee.
“This is just the first phase of the process we’re doing when we talk about the burial ground,” McIntosh said. “After that, we’re going to talk about how to memorialize that sacred space.”
McIntosh emphasized how it was important for the UR community to be involved in the conversation.
“We [are] going to be publishing more meeting opportunities,” he said. “The thing that we want is to have more people engage.”
Senior Megan Wiora agreed that more people needed to discuss UR’s history.
“I think that students don’t know and don’t seek to know,” she said. “And I think that it is the university’s job to make the convoluted and complex histories that manifest on our campus more apparent.
“Even though they’re not pretty and not perfect histories, they deserve to be told.”
Contact copy editor Caroline Fernandez at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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