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The University of Richmond confronts its racist legacy

The University of Richmond confronts its racist legacy

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Douglas Southall Freeman feared that interracial marriage would cause “pollutions of blood.” He praised involuntary sterilization for its “beneficent effects.” And he wrote that slavery “was not of Virginia’s seeking” but rather “imposed on it by the crown.”

John Mitchell Jr. “often challenged Freeman’s editorial stances and never hesitated to denounce his racism.”

The two Richmond newspaper editors — one white, one Black — will share the name of a University of Richmond dormitory currently named exclusively for Freeman as the school confronts a legacy of racism that includes its enslavement of Black people.

University President Ronald A. Crutcher announced the school’s decision in a letter to the university community Thursday. The letter drew heavily from two reports — one on Freeman, the other on the Rev. Robert Ryland, an enslaver who was the first president of Richmond College. A campus building bearing Ryland’s name will remain unchanged.

Some students have voiced disappointment, saying the actions don’t go far enough. Ryland, in leading the institutions that would ultimately become UR, was “both enslaving people and hiring them out, leasing their labor to others for profit,” according to a report by UR researcher Shelby M. Driskill.

Universities have responded differently to the tensions created by this national moment of reckoning on race. Princeton University, citing the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, opted in June to rename its Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and Wilson College, removing the name of the former U.S. president because of his racism. Wilson was also an alumnus and former university president.

Crutcher welcomed the conversation, in all its complexities. In fact, he sought it out.

“As a 73-year-old Black academic, I have found myself countless times walking through the halls of various universities and buildings named after men who not only did not look like me or hold my values, but would most likely have viewed me as inferior and an interloper simply because of my skin color. As a university president, I have been tempted to use my position to relegate such men to the ash heap of history,” Crutcher wrote.

Instead, UR has opted for what it describes as a “braided narrative,” he wrote, that “will put into productive tension the diverse threads of our history, representing both the University’s progress and its shortcomings.”

In 2018, the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the first Black student on UR’s campus, Crutcher established a Presidential Commission for University History and Identity, which recommended the reports on Freeman and Ryland. And calls by students to remove the names coincided roughly with the revelation that part of the campus was built over the graves of enslaved people.

“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,” Crutcher said, but “would instead lead to further cultural and institutional silence and, ultimately, forgetting.”

Descendants of Mitchell expressed delight at UR’s plans.

Mitchell rose from enslavement to become an entrepreneur, banker, Richmond councilman and, as editor of the Richmond Planet, “one of the most powerful Black voices in late 19th- and 20th-century publishing,” wrote UR researcher Suzanne Slye in her report on Freeman, the historian and former editor of The Richmond News Leader, which from 1940 until it went out of business in 1992 was part of the company that owned the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Freeman served as rector of UR’s board of trustees from 1934 to 1950. The Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of George Washington and Robert E. Lee was a Confederate apologist — his father served as a Confederate officer — and supported segregation, Black voter disenfranchisement and the Virginia Sterilization Act of 1924, according to Slye’s report.

Ryland, by 1860, had personally enslaved over two dozen men, women and children. Virginia Baptist Seminary and Richmond College hired an unknown number of enslaved people from enslavers and hiring agents to help run daily operations and serve students and faculty, according to Driskill’s research.

“We were very adamant we wanted the names removed,” said Anthony Polcari, president of the Richmond College Student Government Association, who added that he will continue to press for removal and reparations for the descendants of those enslaved at UR. “There is a sense of disappointment and there’s going to be, I expect, some blowback from the student body.”

Noella Park, president of the Westhampton College Government Association, echoed Polcari in continuing to advocate for the removal of the names. But she added that Mitchell’s name juxtaposed against Freeman’s “really does open up an interesting dialogue.”

Mitchell’s great-great-nephew agreed.

“I’m overjoyed,” said John Mitchell. “Because it’s not just naming the building; I think it actually does something that people keep saying: starting a conversation. This one does start a conversation because he and Douglas Freeman had a back-and-forth.”

Crutcher connected with the Mitchell family through the editor’s great-great-niece, Kimberly Wilson, a former UR employee whose twin daughters have ties to the school.

He wrote that Mitchell’s name on the building will be a recognition of those at UR and in Richmond “who both suffered through and subverted racial oppression.”

When Ryland Hall reopens from its ongoing renovation and expansion, the school will “vividly and fully” tell his story, including his role as an enslaver, and will give permanent recognition to the people he enslaved. A terrace at the new Humanities Commons will provide a place for reflection and be named for an enslaved person or people the university uncovered in its research, Crutcher wrote.

Over the coming months, UR will hold forums on its research on Ryland and enslavement, Freeman and segregation, and the burying ground for the enslaved that was desecrated by the university during the mid-20th century. And the Burial Ground Memorialization Committee will continue working with campus and descendant communities “to recognize and appropriately memorialize the enslaved burying ground.”

In the meantime, the university has placed a sign at the burying ground site.

UR also plans to memorialize William Washington Browne, head of the True Reformers, an African American fraternal organization whose business empire in Jackson Ward included the nation’s first chartered Black bank. UR’s campus is situated on land once owned by True Reformers, who purchased Westham Farm, a former plantation.

“I’m not naïve enough to think that everyone’s going to be happy about our approach here,” Crutcher said Monday. But he said he wants to use the school’s complicated history — which mirrors that of Richmond and the nation — to help students and the community “in wrestling and grappling with these complex histories and the impact they have on everything today.”

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