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Williams: On its legacy of racism, UR must pick a side: white supremacy or its Black students

Williams: On its legacy of racism, UR must pick a side: white supremacy or its Black students

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University of Richmond president Ronald Crutcher wants the tension surrounding the school’s legacy of racism and enslavement to create teachable moments.

But his attempt at racial reconciliation, absent the removal of racist icons, has produced a tangled web of resentment and mixed messages.

On Feb. 25, Crutcher announced that the name of John Mitchell Jr. would be added to a dormitory named for Douglas Southall Freeman. The new name would pair Jim Crow-era newspaper editors from the Richmond Planet and The Richmond News Leader: one Black, one white; one fighting white supremacy, the other promoting segregation, sterilization and Black voter disenfranchisement.

A campus building bearing the name of the Rev. Robert Ryland, an enslaver who was the first president of Richmond College and the pastor of First African Baptist Church, would remain unchanged, with the persons he enslaved permanently recognized. A new terrace will be named for an enslaved person or persons.

Crutcher hoped these moves and others would help students and the community “in wrestling and grappling with these complex histories and the impact they have on everything today.”

Black students at UR aren’t buying it.

They’ve aired their discontent and demands in “Protect Our Web: A Statement on Black Student Welfare,” a manifesto to the UR community at large.

“It is evident that there is an institutional culture of justifying and upholding white supremacy: the most recent and egregious example of this being the refusal to remove Robert Ryland and Douglas Southall Freeman’s names from campus buildings,” the statement reads. “The choice to continue to uplift these violent racists implicitly devalues the lives of Black people and is further evidence of just how deeply ingrained white supremacy still is at UR.”

A year ago, we spoke of erecting more monuments for a more complete telling of history, and adding context to Confederate statues instead of removing them. Then we witnessed George Floyd dying beneath the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. Monuments tumbled down or were lifted off their pedestals; protesters took “context” into their own hands.

At a moment when sedition has become confused with patriotism, we no longer have the luxury of genteel delusions. We are questioning everything — a healthy moment for a city, state and nation too often resistant to self-interrogation.

Among other demands, the students call for the removal of Freeman’s name from Mitchell-Freeman Hall and the renaming of Ryland Hall for pioneering Black female banker Maggie L. Walker.

They argue that UR’s stated plans “create a dangerous false equivalency between Ryland and the people he enslaved as well as between Freeman and Mitchell. This false equivalency suggests that all parties are worth honor and respect when that is simply not the case concerning Ryland and Freeman.”

Indeed, a Richmond Free Press editorial called the pairing of Mitchell and Freeman “tone-deaf and insulting,” and “akin to the state’s abomination of adding Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to a holiday honoring Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.”

“Protect Our Web” was written by students Shira Greer and Simone Reid — part of a core group that includes Jesse Amankwaah, Kayla Corbin, Katiana Isaac, Jordyn Lofton and Kristen Starks. As of Tuesday afternoon, nearly 550 students, staff and other supporters had signed their petition.

We must question why Black students should occupy spaces honoring Ryland, a man who both enslaved people and leased their labor to others for profit. Or Freeman, a former UR board rector who would have refused their enrollment at UR.

UR’s own research, headed by public historian Lauranett Lee and conducted by Shelby Driskill (on Ryland) and Suzanne Slye (on Freeman), produced damning reports.

Naming a building for someone is an expression of veneration and endorsement. But the Black freedom fighter is not ennobled by a pairing with a white supremacist; the enslaved dream the opposite of attachment to the enslaver.

“We know that the decisions we have made are not supported by everyone, but we continue to believe that conversation is the best way to explore and resolve differences,” Crutcher said Tuesday. “Those conversations will most certainly be difficult and uncomfortable at times, and we will continue to listen attentively to the hurt and pain that is expressed by those in our community so that our learning may continue.”

But who are these conversations for and who will be doing the learning?

UR’s plan places undue burden on Black students who already are struggling at an institution that only in recent years embraced diversity. They don’t need another serving of hurt and pain ladled onto that which comes by virtue of being Black at UR. Now is the time for UR to listen attentively.

You cannot reject and uphold white supremacy at once. UR needs to pick a side.

(804) 649-6815

Twitter: @RTDMPW


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