The Collegian
Monday, August 02, 2021

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Black student statement demands changes, renaming of Mitchell-Freeman, Ryland halls

<p>One of the pamphlets outlining the grievances of the Black Student Coalition on a chair at Boatwright Memorial Library on March 7, 2021. &nbsp;&nbsp;</p>

One of the pamphlets outlining the grievances of the Black Student Coalition on a chair at Boatwright Memorial Library on March 7, 2021.   

Editor's note: This is a developing story. Shira Greer is a Collegian editor.

A coalition of Black University of Richmond students released a statement outlining demands for UR to improve Black student welfare on campus, with the condition that Black students would begin withdrawing from involvement at UR if progress on the demands is not made by April 1. 

The first demand is renaming Mitchell-Freeman and Ryland halls to remove Douglas Southall Freeman and Robert Ryland's names because of their ties to slavery and segregation. The statement also calls for the reconsideration of the credit/no credit proposal previously rejected by the UR Faculty Senate and greater mental health consideration for students — specifically more days off and the creation of a financial program to help Black students receive mental health resources off-campus.

The statement, titled Statement on Black Student Welfare, and a Google form students could sign in support of the statement were released on March 4 via the Instagram page, @protectourweb.

When the statement was published, there were 100 signatures from students. As of 5:15 p.m. on March 8, the statement had 495 signatures, including students of all class years, faculty, administrators and other community members.  

If UR does not make a plan to meet the demands of the statement by April 1, Black seniors and other seniors will stop participating in task forces, fundraisers and student organizations, according to the statement. They will also cease contact with UR once they graduate. The statement also placed an April 15 deadline, saying that if UR did not release a plan to meet its demands by then, other non-senior students would disaffiliate from task forces, fundraisers and student organizations.

UR administration did not have a response to The Collegian's request to comment at the time of publication, Cynthia Price, associate vice president of media and public relations at UR, wrote in a March 8 email.

Senior Kayla Corbin was on the editing team of the Black student welfare statement and feels that the voices of Black students are undermined by UR, she said.

"The things that the university does to uphold white supremacy to continue and be a keystone of this university is offensive to the Black students who do so much work to create an equitable culture here,” she said.

Junior Jordyn Lofton, one of the statement's writers and president of the Black Student Alliance, said UR had taken credit for initiatives started by Black students without crediting the students who had done the work. 

Lofton said, for example, when Crutcher announced Africana studies would be implemented in fall 2022, he did not name the five students that originally created the petition for an Africana studies department, who are Corbin, juniors Akeya Fortson-Brown, Shira Greer and Miquell Shaw and senior TJ Tann. 

"In talking to my peers, they felt disrespected," Lofton said.

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On Feb. 17, Crutcher sent an email to the UR community with updates about the Making Excellence Inclusive initiatives. In the section of the email announcing that Africana studies would become available as a major or minor in the fall of 2022, Crutcher wrote:

"In spring 2020, five undergraduate students submitted a proposal calling on the University to create an Africana Studies academic program that 'truly reflect[s] the current scholarly landscape and promote[s] diversity of thought on campus.' Following nearly a year of campus dialogue, a faculty learning community led by Dr. Atiya Husain and Dr. Armond Townes submitted a formal proposal, the first step toward founding an Africana Studies academic program. In December, the School of Arts & Sciences faculty voted overwhelmingly in favor of a motion to create an Africana Studies academic program. This semester will mark the completion of this process, with the dean and provost’s endorsement of an Africana Studies academic program of study. Students will be able to begin majoring and minoring in Africana Studies in the fall of 2022."

Corbin, who co-wrote the Africana studies proposal which was initially published in February 2020, said she thought UR had drawn out the process to create the program.

"Our way of making sure that that doesn't happen, and that we aren't shortchanged is by guaranteeing that there will be repercussions from the student body,” Corbin said.

Corbin also said that the process to decide whether to rename Ryland and Freeman halls has been prolonged. Crutcher announced on Feb. 25 that Freeman Hall would be renamed Mitchell-Freeman Hall, to include the name of former editor of the Richmond Planet, John Mitchell Jr., and that Ryland Hall would not be renamed. 

This email was released almost two years after the Westhampton College Government Association and Richmond College Student Government Association created the 2019 joint resolution to rename the buildings. Mitchell's name was added to the building's signage on Feb. 24. 

Corbin and Lofton said Black students had begun discussing the need for the demands outlined in the statement after Crutcher's Feb. 25 announcement. In the statement, students insist that UR change Mitchell-Freeman Hall to Mitchell Hall — removing the name of Freeman, a newspaper editor who idolized the Lost Cause and publicized his racist views in the Richmond News Leader.  

Lofton was disappointed but not surprised by the renaming decision, she said.

“I found a lot of the rhetoric surrounding why it was changed to be very offensive, especially the description of John Mitchell Jr. and the mentioning of his criminal record as a way to diminish his work that he had done in journalism,” Lofton said. “It seems as though Mitchell was only added to make Freeman look like a better person, instead of just having Freeman on the building." 

Crutcher mentioned Mitchell’s conviction of bank fraud in his Feb. 25 announcement.

“His life was not without controversy,” Crutcher wrote. “He was convicted of bank fraud and was jailed for two weeks before being released; the conviction was ultimately overturned.” 

To Lofton, seeing the Mitchell-Freeman Hall sign is overwhelming, she said.

"When I walk past [Mitchell-Freeman Hall], it feels very daunting and really heavy on my mental and my spiritual health," Lofton said. "Because I feel the kind of weight of my ancestors who came before me, and I feel that weight of people who have fought to get those names removed — just to have it kind of be a slap in the face.” 

In addition to renaming Mitchell-Freeman Hall, the statement proposes Ryland Hall be renamed Walker Hall to honor Richmonder Maggie Walker, the first Black woman to charter and serve as the president of a bank.

Caroline Schiavo, a 2020 graduate and a 2019 WCGA senator who sponsored the building-renaming resolution, said she was supportive of the Statement on Black Student Welfare, but said that expecting UR to make a plan to address the demands by April 1 was unrealistic. 

"I know it took us two years just for them to even consider changing things," Schiavo said. "So, I don't think that April 1 will honestly draw any attention."

Although Schiavo characterized the decision of renaming Freeman Hall to Mitchell-Freeman Hall as disappointing, she applauded UR for looking into the student governments' renaming resolution, she said.

"While this isn't what we wanted, this is a 'braided narrative,' and they're grappling with that," Schiavo said. "They're grappling with the ties to slavery and it's just a start."

Aside from the building renaming, the statement demands UR to expanded academic accommodations for all students given the COVID-19 pandemic. These accommodations include reconsideration of the rejected credit/no credit proposal and an increased number of days off, equal to the amount of days off students would have gotten in a pre-COVID-19 semester. 

A proposal that would have allowed students to take one class as a credit with a D, meaning that students would receive credit for the class as long as they had a grade above a D-, was rejected by the Faculty Senate on Jan. 22. The Black student welfare statement requests the Faculty Senate vote again on the proposal, citing the high levels of stress among the student body. 

After canceling spring break because of COVID-19 concerns, UR scheduled two days off on Feb. 9 and April 7, during which only multi-section lab courses might still meet; and a light work load week, during which all classes were supposed to meet as scheduled, according to UR’s spring 2021 calendar

The Black student welfare statement calls for more days off.

"I can recognize the potential fears [the administration] had by giving an outright spring break," said junior Drew Strong, who signed the statement.

“The rollout or practice of it I have found to be disorganized, and also somewhat disappointing, in that the [days off] are both too spaced out and too few to be as effective as they could be. I feel that the light work week was too inconsistently applied.”

Strong also said he would stop participating in student organizations and fundraisers. Strong is a part of BSA, the Honor Council and Trick or Treat Street, he said.

“There's very much a caveat [the statement writers] acknowledged in not wanting to cut off people's resources, so they weren't asking them to quit their job,” Strong said. “They were asking them to make a stand in limiting their participation in the school's activities and fundraisers. So, I do support that stance just to make our demands heard, but I am hoping that the administration recognizes this pressure and does take us seriously.”

First-year Mark Johnson, who also signed the statement, thinks there should be a light workload week during which students receive training and education about social justice, he said. 

“I think that can definitely be something that's helpful to the community,” Johnson said. “Take a week off from strictly academic work and focus on improving the community and how we can push for change.”

A program for UR to provide funds for Black students, regardless of economic background, to receive mental-health resources off-campus is the last demand of the statement.

The statement points out the disparity between the percentage of Black students in the U.S. who meet the criteria for a mental health problem who receive a diagnosis for their problems compared with the percentage of white students able to receive a diagnosis, noting a 27% difference between the two populations. 

“There are currently only two Black counselors and therapists in [Counseling and Psychological Services],” Lofton said. “A lot of students feel like Black therapists’ workload is too large to handle 200 Black students. So we proposed that the school would subsidize funds to offer to students to get off campus help." 

Corbin characterized her time on campus as exhausting, she said.

“As much as I call the University of Richmond a home, it's because I made it a home,” Corbin said. “I worked along with a whole bunch of other students to make it as homely as possible and to do the work to make it a comfortable place, but looking back, my years here have been exhausting in terms of social work and things that the university should be doing themselves. 

"Students here are exhausted. When I talk to Black students who stayed home this semester, most of them won't even say it was because of the fear of COVID. A lot of them will tell you it's because they were exhausted and tired of being a Black student on this campus. 

"And I am too, and I've never been more excited to leave.”

Pamphlets outlining the statement demands were placed on chairs and tables at the Boatwright Memorial Library on March 5. The coalition plans to hold events to inform more community members about the petition and how disaffiliation from UR task forces, fundraisers and student organizations would work, Corbin said.

Contact news editor Jackie Llanos at jackie.llanoshernandez@richmond.edu.

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