In my four years at the University of Richmond, 1978–1982, I felt embraced, welcomed, and sheltered. I am saddened that others are being proactively deprived of this same experience.
The university has recently announced it will retain the names of two controversial, racist historical figures on campus buildings. Upon learning of the decision, my prevailing feeling was not merely sadness but anger and disbelief. I cannot agree with the university administration’s decision to keep the names, nor do I agree with the reasoning.
Freeman Hall, an 86-person dorm, has been renamed Mitchell-Freeman Hall, joining a former slave who became an entrepreneur, banker, activist, and editor of the African American newspaper, Richmond Planet, with a man who supported segregation, disenfranchisement, and eugenics and condemned interracial marriage. Ryland Hall, an academic building named after a man who enslaved more than two dozen people, will keep its name, but a terrace will be named for enslaved people. Yes, a terrace.
The UR the administration calls this approach a “braided narrative.” I can’t help but wonder what John Mitchell Jr., dubbed the Fighting Editor, would say about braiding his narrative on a sign with Douglas Southall Freeman. Or how an enslaved person would feel, standing on a terrace named after him or her, near a building honoring a slave master. I find it difficult to imagine a Hatfield-McCoy Meditation Center, a Montague-Capulet Morgue, a Trump-Clinton Hotel or a Pelosi-McConnell Center for Collaboration.
In his letter to the university community explaining the decision, outgoing president Ronald A. Crutcher wrote, “I firmly believe that removing Ryland’s and Freeman’s names would not compel us to do the hard, necessary and uncomfortable work of grappling with the university’s ties to slavery and segregation.”
Nor does leaving them.
He wrote, “We cannot be satisfied with a half-told story, which will only lead to a half-consciousness of the past at best.”
Yet that past does not have to be plastered on signs and campus maps for students, faculty, and visitors to see daily, without context.
Changing the names of the buildings, Crutcher said, would “instead lead to further cultural and institutional silence and, ultimately, forgetting.”
No, in a nation still struggling to overcome racism, there are plenty of other reminders.
Telling a “fuller historical narrative” does not necessitate honoring people with buildings named after them, nor is history erased by removing names. Renaming the buildings would not be a “cancel culture” decision condemning someone for being, perhaps, simply a product of their times. The size of Ryland’s and Freeman’s deeds and comparison with others of their times leave room for criticism. And these men are dead — it’s the living we should consider.
For young Black students to live in — or even walk by — buildings named after acknowledged racists rubs salt in a national wound that has yet to heal.
And for young White students to live in or walk by buildings named after acknowledged racists can give them tacit permission to continue to hold and support those same White supremacist beliefs.
I hesitate to argue with President Crutcher on this topic. After all, he is a very successful Black man who has experienced his share of racism and overcome it. I will certainly not question his intentions. But as an empathetic White woman who is actively working for equality in our nation, I find this disturbing.
States, cities, towns, universities, and other institutions throughout the U.S. are struggling with similar issues. Here in Virginia, it seems that most decisions are being made in favor of moving toward a more inclusive future.
In 2020, Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond removed building names, plaques, and symbols that honored the Confederacy. “Removing Confederate symbolism from our campuses, which still yields a de facto segregation in terms of how that historical era gave rise to the education and health disparities we see today, may also serve as an opportunity for reconciliation and restoration,” said Aashir Nasim, Ph.D., vice president of institutional equity, effectiveness and success at VCU and chair of the Committee on Commemorations and Memorials.
Just this year, James Madison University in Harrisonburg renamed three university buildings for prominent Black community members, removing names of Confederate officers. “As advocates for our more than 20,000 students, we deeply appreciate this new embrace of our communities of color,” said Norman Jones III, student representative to the BOV and Campus History Committee member. “On behalf of the Campus History Committee, committed to centering Black and brown stories through renaming, we are humbled and honored to have poured our passion into this reclamation of histories too long obscured.”
Similarly, the City of Richmond, Virginia, has removed 18 monuments to Confederate icons, after protests, discussions, and soul-searching. Only one monument remains, that of General Robert E. Lee. Final removal of the state-owned monument has been held up in courts, primarily by residents who fear removal will decrease the value of their grand Monument Avenue homes.
In expanding the physical campus, the University of Richmond has done a masterful job of adding new buildings in keeping with the Gothic architectural theme of the original buildings. Yet in updating the old structures, the administration does not hesitate to add modern conveniences. Let’s see it do the same masterful job with the names of campus buildings. Let’s see it make all students feel the warm welcome and inclusion of an informed 21st century institute of higher learning.