Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian.
The University of Richmond, which is built atop the remains of enslaved people, is home to plenty of challenges that demonstrate why conversations about race and race-related policies are so complicated. These challenges combined with the negative actions of our highest-ranking administrators, seem to show that our campus’s leaders have no real commitment to the development of a campus community that celebrates equity and inclusion.
In recent times, the Board of Trustees, the official policy making body of the University of Richmond, has taken the side of white supremacy by allowing remnants of the names Robert Ryland and Douglas Southhall Freeman to remain on two UR buildings. This inaction of the board warrants commentary and reflection. In this piece, I argue that the names Ryland and Freeman should be removed from UR buildings. This renaming is necessary because Ryland owned enslaved people and Freeman was an open racist. I further argue that the Board of Trustees needs more racial, ethnic and income diversity.
The lack of promotion of inclusion and equity is present in the reflections of many students who have written about negative experiences they have had because of racism and other forms of discrimination. The Race and Racism exhibition Student Life and White Supremacy, curated by then-students, reflects on the longevity and pervasiveness of our campus culture’s attraction to discrimination and bias. Additionally, my experiences as a student add to this negative showcase of disregard for students who are not white and affluent.
I have expressed my discomfort with how the Office of Alumni Relations sought to objectify the traumatic experiences of underrepresented students to satisfy the interest of affluent, white donors. I have also articulated how I felt I did not belong in the UR community during my sophomore year. More recently, I have communicated the difficulties that Greek life pose to most students’ safety and well-being.
Most of these articles are dated now, but recent events remind us of the problematic culture of our campus community. For example, many of us who identify as students of color cannot forget the incidents of racist and xenophobic graffiti that occured on our campus in January 2020.
In addition to this, just a few weeks ago, the chief of police of the UR Police Department sent the campus community a cryptic email about what appeared to be a confrontation between a student of color, a URPD officer and a security officer. Both of these experiences clearly articulate our campus’s problems, and they provide significant background for the argument that I outline in this editorial.
Instead of UR distancing themselves and the institution from Ryland’s act of owning enslaved people and Freeman’s preaching of a racist gospel in his publications, our institution’s leaders have ultimately decided to ignore the wishes and experiences of many students, faculty and staff. By not changing the names, the board comes off as a body that does not care about the welfare of the students, faculty, and staff that it manages.
On Feb. 25, UR president Ronald Crutcher announced in an email that Ryland Hall would not be renamed. Instead, Ryland Hall will now be home to a reflective space that supposedly memorializes enslaved people. Crutcher also stated that Freeman Hall would become Mitchell-Freeman Hall. In his email, Crutcher further noted that the addition of the name “Mitchell” and the names that would be featured in any new space of Ryland Hall would attempt to provide a balanced history that, in theory, would spur conversations about UR’s history.
I want to believe the decision to not completely rename the buildings was done in good spirit and nature; however, I see nothing but blatant disrespect. To me, there is no way ever to balance the dynamic of slave-holder/enslaved. Furthermore, names of enslaved people should never have to appear with those of their massa for recognition and acknowledgement.
There is and never will be any way for UR to rectify its connection with slave holders completely. But I do know the Feb. 25 statement issued by the Board of Trustees, which denounced the actions of UR’s past leaders, is not enough. There is no combination of words or language sufficient enough to affirm change independent of action. Statements denouncing the past mean almost nothing when the actions of the past continue to harm current students.
Unless the names Ryland and Freeman are removed, there will not be any real change in campus culture. Many community members want to experience an inclusive and welcoming campus, but maybe this wish goes against the desires of some board members. Perhaps the lack of change in the campus culture is the actual goal of some members of UR’s Board of Trustees. Maybe some members of the Board have accepted that there is no real place for diversity, equity, and inclusion on our campus. This is a harsh judgement, but what are community members to think when the opportunity to reposition this institution as one that is inclusive is not taken?
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Further, how are community members to make sense of the board decision when the board that approves diversity, equity and inclusion provisions is not a diverse body itself?
According to the 2020-21 Fact Book, 27.4% of all enrolled students at UR are recognized as students of color, yet the board of trustees, which sets policies that impact these students, is overwhelmingly white and male. Equity and inclusion in the campus community matter, and we will not get this so long as the leadership of our campus remains white. We will achieve an inclusive community so long as the names Ryland and Freeman remain on buildings.
By not wholly renaming Ryland and Mitchell-Freeman halls, the Board of Trustees fails to understand the importance of nomenclature, and it fails to adequately reposition UR as an institution that cares about students with underrepresented or marginalized identities.
This is a problem because the continued disregard for underrepresented community members does not attract students with these identities, and it creates a prominent divide between underrepresented community members and white community members.
Contact contributor Will Walker at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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