The Collegian
Tuesday, August 03, 2021

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OPINION: Change the names

<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.

As a Black student at the University of Richmond, I am continually disappointed. Since arriving at UR in fall 2018, I have found that UR has a history of making choices that, on the surface, seem to be strides toward their beloved framework of diversity, equity and inclusion, but which beneath that facade are merely new ways to continue its legacies of racism and silencing marginalized voices. 

The latest in this pattern of choices are the decisions to keep the name of Ryland Hall, named after enslaver and first UR president Robert Ryland, and rename Freeman Hall to Mitchell-Freeman Hall, named after editor John Mitchell Jr. of the Richmond Planet, and segregationist and UR trustee and rector Douglas Southall Freeman.

To me, these decisions feel like a slap in the face to the student body. In April 2019, the Richmond College Student Government Association and the Westhampton College Government Association released a joint resolution calling for the names of these buildings to be not merely reconsidered, but changed. Instead, per UR president Ronald Crutcher’s Feb. 25 email to the UR community, UR has chosen to ignore the will of the student body and give us a paltry attempt at a so-called “more inclusive, and thus more accurate telling of the University’s history.”

How can Crutcher and, by extension, the UR administration, claim in his email to “unequivocally rejec[t] and condem[n] the racist views” of these two despicable men, Robert Ryland and Douglas Southall Freeman, while it leaves buildings named in their honor? Statues, street names and building names are all powerful forms of commemoration, communicating to those who interact with these sites which historical figures have been deemed by those in power worthy of honor and respect.

This simple fact has been recognized by communities across the country in recent years, particularly since the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement this summer, with pushes to rename streets named after racist historical figures and tear down the statues erected in their honor. In Richmond alone, the Davis, Jackson, Maury and Stuart monuments were removed this past summer. And, the Richmond City Council voted to rename Confederate Avenue to Laburnum Park Boulevard and Jefferson Davis Highway to Richmond Highway (with the first signs bearing the former name of Jefferson Davis Highway coming down within the past week). In Richmond and across the country, legislators and communities alike have recognized that names hold power, and they have taken the action to remove the names of these racists as a small step forward. 

In contrast, by leaving the names of Ryland and Freeman on buildings, UR continues to communicate that they are worthy of our honor and respect. No matter how much the administration touts its beliefs in diversity, equity and inclusion or “Making Excellence Inclusive,” decisions such as these let us know where it truly stands. It can hide behind a desire to “do the hard, necessary, and uncomfortable work of grappling with the University’s ties to slavery and segregation” and a belief that removing these names would “lead to further cultural and institutional silence and, ultimately, forgetting,” as Crutcher wrote in his email. 

However, there are clearly other ways to reckon with and remember our history without continuing to give honor to slave masters and segregationists who glorified the Confederacy and believed in eugenics

As Crutcher noted in his email, our institutional history courses and the Race and Racism Project are both well-positioned to serve as forums to grapple with this history and make sure it continues to be remembered but not lauded. Similar to the displays Crutcher has spoken of installing in Ryland, UR could place informational displays inside both of these buildings summarizing the history of the buildings’ names, including information on their original and new namesakes as well as the reasoning behind changing the names. But to leave the names of Freeman and Ryland on these buildings, especially as UR claims to seek out ways to memorialize the legacy of slavery on campus, is nothing more than blatant disrespect.

What sense does it make to position the name of a former enslaved person who fought for racial justice with the name of a man who advocated for his oppression? To me, putting Mitchell and Freeman’s names together seems to imply that they were both equals during their lifetimes and that today they are both equally worthy of respect. Yet Mitchell lived under the very Jim Crow, segregationist regime Freeman sought to continue — and, as Crutcher wrote in his email, UR “unequivocally rejects and condemns.” Thus, it is clear Mitchell and Freeman were not equals in life nor are they equal now in legacy.

And what sense does it make to recognize the names of the enslaved in a building named after their enslaver? For me, leaving Ryland’s name on the building while claiming to memorialize the people he enslaved adjacent to that very same building is a choice to metaphorically enshrine Ryland’s power over them in perpetuity. I simply cannot see how that is any just form of memorialization for the enslaved people whose self-determination was stolen by Ryland’s enslavement. It pains me that UR believes merely tacking the names of the people whom Ryland enslaved onto a courtyard adjacent to a building named for their enslaver is the best we can do to honor their legacy. 

I believe UR has a long way to go in recovering and reckoning with its history. The names of Ryland Hall and Mitchell-Freeman Hall are but one step in this process, but it is crucial UR takes the necessary action of changing the names of these buildings as the student body called for. 

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A university that chooses to laud slave masters and segregationists with buildings named in their honor and memorialize enslaved people in the building named after their enslaver simply cannot be a place where everyone, specifically Black people, is able to feel that they are valued members of this community. So, to UR administration and the board of trustees: if you actually have an interest in meaningfully reckoning with our institutional history, I implore you to heed the student body’s original call and change the names of Ryland Hall and Mitchell-Freeman Hall.

Contact Notes from the Margins editor Shira Greer at shira.greer@richmond.edu.

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