Editor's Note: Mature language is used in this podcast.
In the first episode of this two-part series, Campus Culture: Exploring the Social Landscape at the University of Richmond, contributor Noah Goldberg investigates the racial history of the University of Richmond and begins to explore its relationship to current campus culture.
Hosted, edited and produced by Noah Goldberg. Edited by Nina Joss. Podcast art created by Jimmy Quinn and Nina Joss.
JARMAL BEVELS: You know, it has to change its culture entirely.
AARON D'OLEO: It’s institutional, it’s there. It’s like the building block of the university.
NOAH GOLDBERG: Welcome to part one of Campus Culture: Exploring The Social Landscape at the University of Richmond. I'm your host, Noah Goldberg. I'm a junior at the University of Richmond. I am a 20-year-old white male and I am currently studying remotely from my home in Massachusetts.
This story is about exploring the social landscape at Richmond, as it says in the title. And a big part of it is how race has factored into the social landscape. Just this year, the Princeton Review put out a list of colleges and universities in the United States with the least amount of racial and class interaction. And the University of Richmond was ranked 10th on that list, essentially saying not that the school doesn't have a diverse student body, but that the different types of people on our campus, particularly based on their socio-economic status and their racial identity, are not interacting with each other. And I think if you talk to students on campus, most would not disagree with that. And so I think that this is a topic that clearly cannot be ignored.
I'd like to preface this by saying that this story is not directly about race in every aspect. I was not looking to ask everyone about race and ask people directly. I am simply exploring the different dynamics of the campus culture at Richmond, the different groups, the various players, from students to student-athletes to Greek life to the administration, to alumni. And really, it's just about taking everyone's accounts of their experiences at the University of Richmond and with the University of Richmond and around it and letting those stories and those voices be heard. And in doing so, race came up a lot. And it was a, and it was a main factor of it. So so I'd like to preface this simply by saying that I am not here to impose my narrative on you, the listeners. I am not here to make claims that the school is racist or that Greek life is racist or that any, you know, that's not what I'm here to do. I'm simply here to collect everyone's accounts and narratives and form them together for you all to listen and form your own opinions. I think that's really important to note because this is not a concrete, absolute evaluation and stamp mark on the status or the culture of the university or the factor that race plays into it. This is- because in doing so, you know, this would not be a fair evaluation. There are too many voices that will not appear in this project. Many more people from the school's administration, people that are currently in Greek life, unaffiliated students, professors, donors, alumni. There are far too many voices that you will not hear in the story. And I think for me to make a judgment about the school and about the culture without those voices being heard would be unfair. So I'm simply here to gather and collect these stories and bring them about for you guys to listen to them.
I come with my own blindness in my own biases. I have my own opinions on what I think the role of Greek life or race or what the school should or shouldn't be doing or what students should or shouldn't be doing. I have opinions on all these things and I'm not going to lie and pretend like I don't, which which is, again, why I'm trying to do everything possible to not craft my narrative, but simply gather these stories and let them be heard and let you guys focus on it. You know, as a white person, I've never had the experience of being a Black student on campus. As a male, I've never had the experience of being a female or a student of another gender identity on campus. I'm not in a Greek organization, so how can I speak to someone's experience who is in Greek life? That's that wouldn't be fair for me. So I'm doing everything in my power to leave my opinions and judgments out of it. I don't want to be the voice in the story. I want the people to be the voice in the story.
With that being said, welcome to part one. In this part of the series, we look to explore the history of the university in terms of its culture and social landscape and how significantly how race was involved in the university and its past and kind of in its founding and how it's developed. Because, again, before we establish and discuss what the current social landscape is like and what the current culture is like, it's important that we have context and understand how we got to where we are today because history affects the present.
So in this part, we're going to do a couple of things. I’m going to provide you guys some history and context on the role of race and where racism has kind of come up in the University of Richmond's history and its past. And we're also going to discuss a little bit about the importance and the value in the influence of culture, norms and values over time and how those things from the past are affecting us today, so I’m going to walk you through a little bit of a history and kind of talk about why does it matter?
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The original campus of the University of Richmond was founded on the land of the Haxall family, a slave-owning family in Virginia. Not an uncommon thing for universities. As we know, there's a storied history of many universities across this country that have been built and founded upon slave labor. In 1973, according to an article from The Collegian, the University of Richmond student-run independent newspaper, the student population of that same year at the university was less than one percent Black. Today, according to the university's website, that number has increased to a now seven percent Black student population. The Collegian article mentioned was titled "Two Students Discuss the Life of a One Percent Minority." The story speaks with two Black students at the time, and in it, they mention Carlton Mack. Carlton Mack was the first Black athlete to go to the University of Richmond. He joined the school in 1971 and he played on the basketball team. Another Collegian article from 1971 when Mack was a freshman. The article covered him and it was titled "Black Athlete Chose Spiders Over Other Reputable Teams." In the article, Mack is quoted as saying, in terms of his decision to attend the university, he says, quote, “It is a small school, plays a good schedule and has a good academic reputation. There is really no social life to offer the Black athlete here, but I must admit that everyone has been real nice to me.”
One of the first student-athletes from the University of Richmond that I spoke with for this story is his name was Jarmal Bevels. Jarmal was a football player at the University of Richmond for five years. He graduated in 2018, which was the same year he played his fifth season as a redshirt senior. I spoke with Jamal to get his account of his experiences at the University of Richmond and describe what the social landscape and the social life was like for him as a Black student-athlete.
BEVELS: I’m Jarmal Bevels Junior. I’m the middle child in my family. 25 years old, graduated from University of Richmond undergrad in 2014, grad school 2018. So right now I work for this startup company as a creative director. So I grew up an hour north of Richmond. Yeah, I live outside D.C. and then I grew up in a small town called Fredericksburg, Virginia.
GOLDBERG: Jarmal went on to talk about his experiences with and describing the social landscape at the University of Richmond in his time there, his experiences with race and the role he thought race played in the social landscape at Richmond. And so I asked him, you know, what do you think? If there is a problem, what do you think it is? And why do you believe that there's become this kind of divided culture on campus at Richmond?
So, so what do you think is, you say the problem with Richmond, the campus specifically because obviously the fourth last year. This year, they were ranked 10th for not the least diversity because they have a diverse student body, but for the least interaction of different people is different. Inclusiveness, they’re not interacting. What do you think what do you think is at the root of that?
BEVELS: Man, I mean, I think it goes all the way back to, like, just how the University of Richmond was founded. Like, I I like a lot of the things- like they won’t say Black Lives Matter because they didn't want- I mean, from what I've heard is that they don't want to upset any of the alumni, being in a private institution. You rely a lot on that endowment and what not of the of the alumnus and alumni. And, you know, a lot of those alumnus’s children go to school there. You know, a lot of them are grandfathered in and so on with there. I think a lot of it comes to how University of Richmond was built, which was built, like I said, alumni past, previous and future. Like, you know, I took a class at Richmond called the Black Vernacular and basically studied just like, you know, the first Black athlete on campus was on the basketball team in 1968.
You know, ten years before that, University of Richmond was the number one Black minstrelsy like what was, a thespian group in the US. You know, people from all over the US would come to the University of Richmond’s campus, Modlin Theater of Arts to watch Black minstrelsies, which is basically just like white actors dressed in blackface, you know, playing Black actors in like really, really bad way, you know what I mean? University of Richmond was built on that, you know what I mean? Like, they, they were known as the best Black minstrelsies, a little less than what is it now, 60 years ago. So, I mean, is it really hard to get, you know, if we can't dig that culture out of United States of America, it’s going to be hard to dig it out of the University of Richmond. It is literally the same alums who were participating in either in the audience or in that play, are giving them their admission ticket money, you know, are still donating money to the school the day that their kids are still going to school. You know, teaching those values. So it's just kind of, you know, Richmond has to change its culture entirely. To at least help the problem.
I turned to the Race and Racism Project at the University of Richmond to get a little background on Glee clubs, minstrelsy, blackface and what are called African-American spirituals and what these things are. And to understand what their role was at the University of Richmond. The, the piece explains minstrelsy as a form of entertainment developed in the late 19th century and that it was mainly performed by white people in blackface. Minstrelsies were performed as part of Glee clubs, which came from 18th century England and the term referred to, according to the article, a group of men singing parlor songs, folk songs and other short, simple songs of the like in close harmony with one another. And so Glee clubs in and of themselves do not necessarily refer to blackface or minstrelsy, but rather minstrelsy performances were part of these Glee clubs. According to the article. Such performances by these Glee clubs at the University of Richmond ran from the 1920s all the way up until the 1970s. To quote the article, “because it was not extremely common for Glee clubs to sing African-American spirituals,” which are described as religious songs sung by enslaved people in the United States during the end of the era of slavery, “it is interesting to think about why the Richmond College Glee Club sang them so often.”
These Glee clubs and minstrelsy performances were not the only parts of the Richmond institution that displayed pretty blatant attitudes of racism. In an article from 1923 in The Collegian talks about John Powell, a distinguished Richmond pianist and notable politically active segregationist. He in that year helped found a chapter of the Anglo-Saxon Club of America at U of R. In 1952 University of Richmond President George Modlin, who the current Center for Arts is named after, he sent a letter to the dean of the University of Virginia Law School. In this letter, Modlin writes, “It is the opinion of the university's trustees and officers that racial segregation will disappear more or less gradually and naturally in all the institutional members of the association. And we look with favor on this trend. At the same time, we view with deep concern the apparent efforts of the association to force the elimination of segregation by legislative action within a comparatively brief period of time. At the University of Richmond, we feel that it would be the part of wisdom to follow a more gradual policy of natural social evolution. With cordial good wishes. Sincerely yours, George and Modlin, President.”
While clearly we no longer have an Anglo-Saxon club at the University of Richmond; we don't have George Modlin president anymore, in fact, we have a Black president in Ronald Crutcher, these things do have a lasting effect on the school today. You know, as Jarmal noted, you know, people who are at, who attended Richmond in the 1950s during, you know, when minstrelsy performances were there, some of the people that were in those performances, you know, they've had grandchildren and relatives that, you know, attend the school today.
And, you know, there's legacy in and, you know, some of those people still donate to the school to this day, are directly contributing money and having influence on the university and therefore the decisions it makes in the way it runs the school.
I also had the chance to speak with Aaron D’Oleo, who attended the University of Richmond and graduated in 2019. He was a manager on the basketball team, and in our conversation, kind of as it did with Jarmal, it also turned to the university's institutional roots and its history.
D'OLEO: You know, my name's Aaron D’Oleo. I come from a small town in Jersey. It's an urban ribbon school. I come from a home in Dominican-Puerto Rican. So, my mom looks white, my dad looks Black. Growing up, everything was diverse, right? I look racially ambiguous.
We have to recognize that the alumni and a lot of them are part of the system that has been, you know, established since the beginning of time. Like we think about even the history of Richmond, like it was founded. Right. Like like and, you know, even the division of campus is right. We have Richmond College and Westhampton. Right. Like the fact that we still have some- I'm not saying that it is wrong to have that like, but there's an unspoken division automatically. Right.
GOLDBERG: For context, here Aaron's referring to the different colleges at Richmond that male students and female-identifying students belong to. So when you come to campus as a male student your freshman year, you are assigned to what's called Richmond College and Richmond College has its own dean, so all the male students, Dean Boehman is the dean of Richmond College. All the female students that come to campus their freshman year belong to Westhampton College. So all your classes and everything are still together. But there is this divide and certain administrative resources students have and the deans and some representation as well as in student government, too.
D'OLEO: And it's ruled by these people, unfortunately, that you don't have the money happen to be a lot of them happen to be white men, right, to be white man. Some of the dorms. Right, are named after slave owners, right? Well, like Jeter Hall or Thomas. What was this like?
GOLDBERG: It was a couple. I know Ryland. I know. Ryland. Right. Yeah.
D'OLEO: Ryland was one of them. Right. And all these different things. It's institutional. It's there like it's the building block of the university. Right. Right. Now, the only way to change is to have these conversations about the merit of. Right. Like that, those certain those sorts of things that I benefit from. I will say I benefited and I'm proud graduate of Richmond. But the fact of the matter is, there's so many things that have to be changed and the narrative has to be changed. We have to have the conversation. There has to be a recognition from the top.
GOLDBERG: Right, like here, Aaron shines a light on, on the really important fact that, you know, the past affects the present. And what I mean by this is, is how he emphasizes the influence and the power of these board members and how, you know, for instance, five of the current sitting board of directors, members of the board of directors at the University of Richmond, five of them graduated from Richmond in 1977, or prior. Two of them actually in the 60s as well. And so and I'm not saying that, you know, we can't have, you know, members on the board or donors or alumni with influence from the past because, you know, just because you went to Richmond in 1965 doesn't mean you're a racist. In fact, I have no idea. I don't know if any board members were part of those minstrelsy clubs or part of the Anglo-Saxon club. That's not what I'm saying. All I'm saying is we do have to acknowledge, whether for good or for bad, that the values and the cultures and things that happened, you know, on our campus and in our Richmond community. You know, things that happened a long time ago still affect things today. In fact, that's not- it's not an all bad concept because we do need to learn from our past. And having active memories from those periods of time are important, you know, to- to have influential members, you know, affecting our campus, now, that experienced and went through, you know, those periods in, you know, the 20th century and in the 19th century of segregation and discrimination, you know, they're able to remind us. And when they're making decisions about the school, they have those things in mind. You know, having board members that were at the university during the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination. So so, yes, you know, it can be bad that some of these terrible racist attitudes and things can be passed down. But this isn't an all bad thing. That's why we need to examine this from from a holistic perspective.
During an interview in A Campus Divided, a student-run podcast that was part of the Race and Racism Project at the University of Richmond, Rayford Harris discussed his social life as one of the first Black student athletes at Richmond. While I should note, first of all, that Rayford said he did not live at campus, so he was not there constantly socializing, but he was spending most of his time there. And in the interview he reflected fairly positively on his experience and said everything was cordial and he really didn't have problems with anyone and he felt he had a very embracing social life and social experience in his time, Rayford’s account still doesn't seem to fall in line with the majority of the experiences that I was able to find in that, that it appeared the Race and Racism Project was able to dig up. A 1971 editorial in The Collegian titled "Product of Neglect The Absence of a Black Social Life," it details and accounts the social experience of the very few Black students that were at the university during that time period. The editorial reads: “The Blacks now attending the university are the forerunners of what might one day become a large, important and valuable part of the student body, making as much of a contribution to the institution which they attend as it can make to them,” essentially implying that one day they could be a valuable part of the community, but at present time they were not. Elaborating on the social experience of the Black students at Richmond, they go on to mention a sentiment that I really want to take note of here that you're going to see reappear in part two. The article goes on to read, “What cannot be found at the university itself can only be sought at neighboring institutions such as Virginia Commonwealth or Virginia Union.” It later continues, “Have you ever told someone that you went to, quote ‘Richmond’ and have them immediately say, quote, what, VCU or even worse, RPI, a school which no longer exists? To Black minds, Richmond indicates Virginia Union or VCU.”
The article goes on to discuss the absence of a Black fraternity, the absence of a Black student union and and really the lack of entertainment and social opportunities, such as mixers, for instance, for four Black students. And we know that those things are more available today. There are multicultural events today. There is a Black fraternity on campus. So we know those things have not concretely carried over to the present day. However, I think it's really powerful to listen to the idea that these students in 1971 said that they had to go to VCU to get the things that they were lacking at U of R, and that is a sentiment that in speaking with former students, Black former students at the University of Richmond, that that sentiment really echoed with them. And they almost said the exact same thing, you know, only two or three years ago that they were there. So. So, no, not every institution necessarily from Richmond's past carried over to today, but certain values and traditions and other cultural norms do persist. And it is important, both good and bad, to acknowledge the past, acknowledge what present-day looks like and kind of learn from history and see, “OK, we've made changes. Things are different now. There's still more that can be done. And where do we go from here?”
Thank you for listening to part one of Campus Culture: Exploring The Social Landscape At The University of Richmond. In part two, I will speak with various current and former students at the University of Richmond to try to establish what the makeup and different dynamics of the social landscape are.
Contact contributor Noah Goldberg at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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