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Williams: The debate at UR is about more than the names of buildings. The school's reputation is at stake.
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MORE THAN BUILDINGS

Williams: The debate at UR is about more than the names of buildings. The school's reputation is at stake.

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The University of Richmond’s half-stepping on racial progress has jeopardized its future as a racially inclusive institution.

On Feb. 25, UR President Ronald A. Crutcher announced that the name of crusading Black newspaper editor John Mitchell Jr. would be added to a dormitory named for white supremacist newspaper editor Douglas Southall Freeman. A campus building bearing the name of the Rev. Robert Ryland, an enslaver who founded Richmond College, would remain unchanged. The persons he enslaved would permanently be recognized. A new terrace would be named for an enslaved person or persons.

Crutcher, the school’s first Black president, spoke of his desire for a “braided narrative” in which UR would use the tension created by an honest accounting of its history, good and ugly, as a teaching tool.

But straddling the fence separating the right and wrong sides of history is tricky.

The result has created — or exacerbated — a chasm of values between UR’s leadership and that of its students, faculty and workers.

A March 26 meeting of Board of Trustees representatives, faculty, staff and students went south, with faculty representatives saying that Rector Paul Queally referred to students as Black, brown and “regular students,” according to a Times-Dispatch story by Eric Kolenich.

Jessica Washington, a UR employee who attended the meeting and is Black, said she was singled out, interrupted and condescended to. She called the interaction the “single most horrific and traumatizing work experience I have ever had.”

The 17-member faculty senate unanimously voted to censure Queally. The board came to Queally’s defense, saying his words, tone and intent were mischaracterized.

The meeting exposed fissures on the campus that can’t be papered over by the removal of names. UR can’t confidently walk as a 21st century institution as long as Jim Crow icons and attitudes remain.

Earlier this week, Crutcher and the Board of Trustees hit the pause button.

“We respect the deep convictions about these names among faculty, staff, students, and alumni, and the Board of Trustees and I accept that we have not handled either the process or the decision relating to the building naming matter as well as we should have,” he wrote.

“Accordingly, the Board of Trustees and I have decided to suspend the recent naming decisions and to review options for a broader, more inclusive process to determine how decisions are made about questions of renaming.”

The process should have been inclusive from the get-go.

UR student Shira Greer, who co-wrote “Protect Our Web: A Statement on Black Student Welfare,” called the statement vague but heartening.

“We hope that this can be sort of a commitment of good faith and that moving forward they will be including us: students, faculty, staff, the community members who are really on the ground day in and day out at this school, taking classes, working there, living there,” she said Thursday. “But we really don’t have any way to gauge that because the pushback has been very extreme so far.”

She noted that other universities in Virginia have been more forthright in removing Confederate symbols in the aftermath of Black Lives Matter protests. “It’s just funny to see how willing the university was, the Board of Trustees has been, to sort of go against that and stake that claim even in this political movement.”

Freeman was a UR trustee and rector from 1925 to 1950 and editor of The Richmond News Leader, which later merged with the Richmond Times-Dispatch. According to UR’s report, written by Lauranett Lee and Suzanne Slye, Freeman promoted segregation and disenfranchisement of Black people. He called interracial marriages “pollutions of blood” and supported efforts for eugenics.

Freeman was lionized in his lifetime as the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Robert E. Lee and George Washington. But our reckoning on race has stripped the rose-colored tint from the historical lens.

“Everybody’s moving towards dealing with history in a different way, through actual education, rather than just leaving up these symbols of power and conveying honors to these people that don’t fit in with our values at the university community, or even larger communities like the city of Richmond and the state of Virginia,” Greer said.

It’s hard to imagine reconciliation on UR’s campus as long as Queally is rector. Greer, lured by UR’s generous financial package, says she’s among the Black students who’ve lost confidence in the school and can’t wait to graduate. This episode has placed the school’s diversity efforts at risk.

To the extent UR clings to its racist past, it threatens its future. Absent real change, the school — not merely its buildings — will develop a bad name on inclusion.

mwilliams@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6815

Twitter: @RTDMPW

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