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“I Don’t Really Think They Have an Interest in Making Us Feeling as Safe as We Need To Be:" Black Students Demand Action From University of Richmond

Building
The Queally Center for Admission and Career Services at the University of Richmond. (Photo: Alex Scribner/VPM News)

In 2019, two campus organizations issued a joint resolution calling on the University of Richmond to change the names of Freeman and Ryland Halls.

Freeman Hall opened its doors to students on October 30, 1965. It is named after the author and segregationist, Douglas Southall Freeman, who would salute the statue of Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue on his way to work every day.

Ryland Hall is named after the first president of the school, Rev. Robert Ryland, who defended and participated in the practice of slavery.

According to a report by researcher Shelby Driskell, Ryland “defended” himself against accusations he sympathized with abolitionists in a statement declaring he owned “about a dozen slaves” and claiming the practice wasn’t “morally wrong under existing circumstances.”

Students at the university have long expressed a desire for the names on the buildings to be changed due to their connections to slavery and racism. They got their answer at the end of February, 2021, in an email from university President Ronald Crutcher announcing that Freeman Hall would now be known as Freeman-Mitchell Hall.

The email said it would “honor the life and work” of John Mitchell Jr., former editor of the Richmond Planet, a paper that became famous over 100 years ago by promoting civil rights and racial equality.

Crutcher also announced the name of Ryland Hall would remain unchanged. However, there are now plans to build a display in the building commemorating those enslaved.

But for too many Black students, this announcement felt like less of an “honor” and more of an insult; not just to Mitchell, but to their identities and experiences at the school.

“The level of insulting that was, and they had President Crutcher, a Black man, send that email was doubly hurtful,” said Lexi Cobbs, a sophomore. “I’m not surprised, but I’m still trying to wrap my head around how anybody thought that was any kind of a good idea.”

Cobbs says that by binding the names of these two together, the university has linked a white supremacist to a man who, after being born in slavery, spent the rest of his life advocating for his people at a disadvantage because of men like Freeman. 

“You’re going to put the oppressed, hyphenated with the oppressor,” she said, saying the email painted the two as “frenemies.” But, “They weren’t Hamilton and Burr. These men were not of equal social status.”

Now, two years after the earlier resolution, a coalition of Black students released Protect Our Web: A Statement on Black Student Welfare outlining several demands for the school’s administration.

Among the demands, which include expanded academic accommodations and the subsidizing of off-campus mental health services for Black students, is a request to remove Freeman’s name from the dormitory along with renaming Ryland Hall.

Jordyn Lofton, a junior at the University of Richmond and president of the campus Black Student Alliance, believes the biggest reason behind the school's resistance to meet students' demands is money.

“The names attached to those buildings belong to families who are still donating and endowing to the university every year,” she said. “When you change names on buildings you jeopardize those funds.”

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson denied donors have any say.

“Donors do not decide on building names. Only the board of trustees are authorized to name a building in honor of an individual or entity,” they said. “Some trustees are also donors, but any authority they have to impact the naming of a building is linked to their position on the board, not their status as a donor.”

Regardless of who decides which names go on the buildings, to Lofton and her peers, this is just another transgression in a long history of the school devaluing their contributions and well-being for the sake of upholding the institution of white supremacy.

“We have reiterated the fact that we need these things, but they still have continued to be this wall between us and being safe here,” said Simone Reid, a sophomore. “I don’t really think they have an interest in making us feeling as safe as we need to be to have a positive experience.”

The email informing the student body of the name was the final straw for Reid and others.

“They brought us back here during a pandemic, didn’t give us any academic accommodations, it's this common theme and pattern of disrespect plus COVID and the racism, and now you’re going to send that email,” she said. “That was kind of just the nail in the coffin.”

Lofton agreed with Reid, saying after she received the email and saw Freeman’s name would be attached to Mitchell’s, she felt overwhelmed and guilty walking by the building every day and not doing anything about it.

“It's shameful, and it felt like there was an urgency to do something, ” Lofton said. “Not just because I’m a member of leadership or the president of the Black Alliance, but because I’m a Black student attending a university where there will be Black students after me.”

According to the email sent to students, one of the reasons for the name change was to create conversation and initiate dialogue around campus.

But Lofton says the administration does not understand the harm this will do to Black students, who will have to create and lead those conversations.

“When professors with their Ph.D.’s can’t seem to get students to talk, we’re always the first ones,” who have to create the space for those conversations, she said, adding an additional burden to Black students already experiencing the trauma of racism.

“My duty as a Black woman and a Black scholar is to advocate for my people when no one else will,” Lofton said. “When that building name was changed, it placed a responsibility on me that one, I didn’t need, and two, one that I have to continue to fight against.

“It's a Catch-22 where I’m an activist and yes I’m proud to be an activist, but I also just want to be a student sometimes too.”

Shira Greer, one of the writers of the Protect our Web statement and one of five students behind a proposal to create the university's upcoming Africana Studies program, says students are well aware of the school’s history, and the refusal to change the name makes it clear what their priorities are.

“For me, walking around campus knowing you're walking by buildings named after slave owners, segregationists and eugenicists, that’s something that I would think about fairly often,” she said. “That just adds another layer to all of this knowing that the land where we’re situated has that history, and the names still being here just reinforces all of that.”

Statements, dialogue and context have failed, say Black students. Now, they want to take real action.

“This statement is only the first step,” Cobbs said. “We just can’t keep talking about the same things and seeing nothing happen.”

According to the Protect Our Web statement, if the demands are not met by April 1, Black seniors who signed will begin to disaffiliate and, once they graduate, cease contact with the university. If a plan is not released by April 15, undergraduates will begin to disaffiliate.

“Their only real commitment to our livelihood and well-being is dialogue,” Reid said. “How many conversations can we have without any concrete change that actually shows you care what we’re going through?”