The Collegian
Sunday, October 25, 2020

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OPINION: There’s Moore Work to Do

<p>Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian</p>

Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian

Editor's Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian.

Almost exactly one year ago, a Collegian article recounted the disturbing history of the University of Richmond campus as a plantation and the possible burial ground site for enslaved people. The article also reported the formation of the Presidential Commission on University History and Identity, which was considering plans to memorialize the people who unjustly died on the land. The President's commission recommended considering changing the names of buildings such as Ryland Hall, which was named after an owner of enslaved people. 

In this moment, we must maintain a critical consciousness of the history of white supremacy in our institution and the space it occupies. But if we want to make a statement about progress and inclusivity, we cannot stop at slavery. We need to think about UR’s complicity in white supremacist violence over time. We can begin with revoking the commemoration of a racial segregation defender by renaming Moore Hall. 

Moore Hall was the first place I called home at UR. When I first Googled the dorm building before moving to campus, I found that the building was named in honor of T. Justin Moore, with blurbs describing him as a “distinguished lawyer” and alumnus of Richmond College.  Yet, these search results do not represent the depth of Moore’s legacy. While serving on the UR Board of Trustees, Moore and his law firm represented a Virginia school county’s racial segregation policies in the infamous Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, one of the five cases which would become Brown v. Board of Education

In 1951, the NAACP filed Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County after students of the all-Black Robert Russa Moton High School staged a walkout to protest the poor conditions of the school brought on by the racist and segregationist policies of the Prince Edward County School Board. Moore and his partners at his law firm, Hunton, Williams, Gay, Moore & Powell, defended Prince Edward County’s “separate but equal” practices and won the case. (You can see Moore’s correspondence as trustee of UR using Hunton, Williams, Gay, Moore & Powell stationary here.) 

But “equal” was far from the truth. The Virginia public school system has been segregated since its founding in 1870, and schools for Black students were severely underfunded. Unlike its white counterpart in the school district, R.R. Moton High School lacked a cafeteria, a gym, a nurse’s office and enough desks for its students. It also suffered from dire overcrowding, with the school building holding 2.5 times as many students as it was designed to in 1951. 

Despite complaints from the community, the all-white school board refused to provide additional funding. The board instead chose to deal with the high school’s overcrowding by erecting tar paper shacks, with leaky roofs and minimal heating that required many students to wear their winter coats, scarves and hats to keep warm inside the classrooms.  

We now know that the Supreme Court would strike down the Virginia court’s ruling three years later and declare racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional. But at that moment, in 1951, Moore chose to stand against the changing tide of history. 

I am not here to “cancel” Moore nor his family. However, Moore’s choice to protect racial segregation is distressing enough for me to ask the administration to recontextualize his legacy. It is not right for an institution of learning (with a growing population of students and faculty of color) to keep commemorating a man who stood against the civil rights of children. 

When it comes to choosing a new name for the first-year residence hall, we are not lacking in candidates. The commemoration of the building could go to Oliver Hill, one of the NAACP lawyers who fought on behalf of the students of R.R. Moton High School, after whom UR already named a scholarship fund. Or we could follow Capitol Square’s lead and commemorate civil rights leader Barbara Johns, who led the Moton student protest at the age of 16. 

Nevertheless, changing the name of Moore Hall is only a symbolic first step. I am sharing this research as an example of UR’s unfinished business before it can claim to be an institution of diversity and inclusion. Learning about our university’s relationship to slavery and Jim Crow is only the beginning. A critical consciousness requires robust critical scholarship. It’s time for an Africana studies department. The Africana studies student committee has created an excellent proposal and petition. If you have not checked it out yet, you need to get on that. 

UR is in the former capital of the Confederacy. We may be literally walking on the remains of enslaved people who worked on this land when we come back to campus in a few weeks. We owe it to ourselves and to the greater Richmond community to critically learn and analyze our history and the history of this space. 

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I really recommend checking out these videos by the Moton Museum for more information on R.R. Moton High School, Barbara Johns, and Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County. Even after Brown v. Board, the Prince Edward County government went to great lengths to prevent Black students from receiving a proper education.

For a broader historical background, check out “Taylor Branch's Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63” (1988). This book inspired the research for this article, and it is available both at Boatwright Memorial and Law School libraries. 

Contact contributor Sam Burns at sam.burns@richmond.edu.

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