Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D- Richmond, is watching the University of Richmond, her alma mater, gain national media attention following the Board of Trustees' decision to not remove the names of Robert Ryland and Douglas Southall Freeman from two campus buildings.
McClellan said for a long time, few people had talked about race at UR.
“It makes sense that, with the racial reckoning we have experienced across the Commonwealth and across the country over the past year, those tensions have been ignited on campus,” she said.
The veteran state legislator is running in a tight gubernatorial race in Virginia in hope of becoming the state’s first Black female governor.
Her opponents in the Nov. 2 election include Jennifer Carroll Foy, an attorney and former member of the Virginia House of Delegates, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas, and Terry McAuliffe, former governor of Virginia.
McClellan, who has a family history of civil rights activism, said she wanted to use her position to help end racism for her two children.
Ernest McGowen, a political science professor at UR who teaches about elections and race, said McClellan had succeeded at every level of government. He hopes to see her establish herself more in the race, he said.
“It will be interesting to see how she navigates this primary,” he said.
McClellan participated in her first gubernatorial debate April 6, touting her legislative experience. While the Democrats were in the minority party, McClellan was still able to pass over 300 bills, she said.
McClellan said UR leadership on the Board, including President Ronald Crutcher, was failing to listen to students on racial justice. Good leaders solve problems, manage crises and communicate clearly, McClellan said, but UR’s leadership was failing on these fronts.
Over the past few years, universities including Georgetown, James Madison, Princeton and Yale have removed names on buildings that honored people with connections to slavery.
UR’s Board wrote to the community on March 17 that retaining the names would be in accordance with UR’s educational mission following calls from the Black Student following to remove them.
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Black students formed the coalition to demand that the buildings be renamed and that UR takes further steps to make the campus more welcoming to students of color.
McClellan said Black students had taken on a great burden explaining to UR officials what is wrong with keeping these names.
“I think the university itself should have started this conversation, not waited for someone to raise it,” she said.
In 2019, Crutcher commissioned a study detailing the histories of Ryland and Freeman.
Ryland, a Baptist minister, was the founding president of what was then known as Richmond College from 1840 to 1866. He had enslaved 15 people just before the Civil War, and in 1858 he said that he had never freed any people held in bondage nor had no intention to do so, according to a report released in the University of Richmond Inclusive History Project.
Freeman was a trustee of UR from 1925 to 1950. He was also a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and columnist, and an advocate of segregation and eugenics, according to a report released in the University of Richmond Inclusive History Project. His work memorialized the Confederacy and he also referred to the Civil War as the “Lost Cause.”
On April 12, the Board shared a message with the UR community about future naming decisions including the creation of a commission to establish rules on naming.
Junior Makayla Callender, who gives tours of UR's campus from her perspective as the Westhampton College Class of 2022 president, said she wanted the names to be changed. Every time Callender gives a tour and introduces Ryland Hall, she thinks about Ryland’s history and is reminded of his ownership of human beings, she said.
“It’s these structures that inadvertently build in racist ideals into our institution,” she said.
McClellan said she thought the building names should be changed.
"A Black person having to live, walk in and sleep in a building named for a white supremacist is a burden,” she said.
McClellan said she was not surprised to hear about the current events happening on UR’s campus. When she was a student at UR, McClellan said racial tension on campus was present following the beating of Rodney King.
Daniel Palazzolo, a professor of political science who taught McClellan during her time at UR, said McClellan had always viewed politics as a means to bring about positive change.
“She understands problems of racism and racial discrimination at a systematic and human level, and she has spent a great deal of time, energy and effort to address racial disparities,” Palazzolo said.
Palazzolo teaches a course on the Virginia General Assembly and tries to remain neutral during elections, he said. However, he said McClellan was a “brilliant legislator, exemplary public servant and outstanding leader.”
McClellan said teaching history was important to move forward from racism.
“There’s been this whitewashing of our history and not a true telling or a complete telling of our entire history,” McClellan said.“Because of that, so many people who grew up after Jim Crow -- once it legally ended -- don’t understand how it still impacts people and communities and systems today.”
The Board wrote in a message to the UR community that keeping Mitchell-Freeman and Ryland would help the campus tell its full and openly painful history, which includes slavery and segregation.
“There’s a lot of emotional energy spent in trying to ignore the trauma,” she said, adding that those names can trigger 400 years of Black pain and suffering.
Over 1,000 students, faculty and staff, along with more than 90 campus organizations, signed petitions and letters of support for the BSC, all demanding that the names be removed.
Along with these petitions came statements from the University Faculty Senate and staff members. The departments of English, classical studies, history and philosophy, which are scheduled to move into the newly renovated Ryland Hall when it opens over the summer, released a statement condemning the Board’s decision.
The Faculty Senate has since voted to censure Rector Paul Queally, who in a meeting with faculty said UR should meet the needs of "Black, Brown and 'regular students,'" according to members of the Faculty Senate who were present.
When the Board took no action against Queally after the vote to censure, a motion of no confidence in Queally was passed by faculty in addition to a request for his removal from the Board.
McClellan said communities would never heal from trauma unless society addresses racism specifically and correctly.
“Any family cannot heal from a trauma unless they talk about the trauma and how it impacts the family,” McClellan said. “That is exactly why communities across the South haven’t healed.”
Nor has UR, McClellan said.
Contact contributor Elyse Kimball at email@example.com.
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