Students Protest After University of Richmond Decides Not to Remove Controversial Names from Campus Buildings

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The University of Richmond (UR) has decided it will not remove from campus buildings the names of founding President Robert Ryland, who enslaved people, and former University of Richmond Rector Douglas Southall Freeman, who promoted segregation and supported eugenics.

The Board of Trustees and President Ronald Crutcher announced in February that Ryland Hall would retain its name, but they would use the building as an opportunity to tell the whole story of the founding of the school. They also announced that Freeman Hall would be renamed to Mitchell-Freeman Hall, honoring former slave and editor of the Richmond Planet John Mitchell Jr.

After the announcement, 88 campus organizations announced they would disaffiliate from the University. The UR Black Student Coalition has also led protests, including a silent protest held last Friday, according to UR newspaper The Collegian.

The decision was in response to a 2019 request from student government to rename the buildings.

“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. It would not move us closer toward a fuller, more cohesive institutional narrative. It would not keep a spotlight on how historical University leaders also acted in ways to impede progress,” Crutcher wrote in a February update.

“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,” he wrote.

After Crutcher’s update, on March 4 a statement published by the Black Student Coalition called for Ryland’s and Freeman’s names to be removed from the buildings.

“Statues, street names, and building names are all powerful forms of commemoration that communicate who is worthy of honor and respect. By continuing to leave these buildings named after enslaver Robert Ryland and segregationist and eugenicist Douglas Southall Freeman, the University of Richmond continues to perpetuate white supremacy by communicating that these men are worthy of being honored on our campus,” the statement said.

Students also organized a teach-in protest, according to The Collegian.

But Crutcher and the board responded, repeating that they would not remove the names of Ryland and Freeman.

“In numerous conversations, the Board gave careful consideration to the question raised by the student governments of removing Ryland’s and Freeman’s names from the buildings on our campus. We believe, however, that removing building names is inconsistent with the pursuit of our educational mission, which informs all of our actions,” states a March 17 letter from the board.

The same day, Crutcher wrote, “The release of the Rev. Robert Ryland and Douglas Southall Freeman reports, which advanced our understanding of the University’s deep ties to enslavement and segregation, was difficult for many students and members of the University of Richmond community. As a descendant of enslaved persons, I recognize how painful these histories are — and I understand that my and the Board’s decisions regarding campus building names have disappointed and hurt members of our community.”

But he said, “The Board, University leadership, and I remain committed to ensuring that the history of our campus is thoroughly understood, enlivened, and expanded to reflect the rich diversity of our campus. Though it will be challenging at times, I urge students and members of the community to continue to participate in this work to inform and advance our community toward a better and more inclusive future.”

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Eric Burk is a reporter at The Virginia Star and the Star News Digital Network.  Email tips to [email protected].
Photo “Ryland Hall” by Michael Kotrady CC4.0

 

 

 

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