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Black Students Say University of Richmond Ignoring Concerns

school building
The University of Richmond campus. (Photo: Alex Scribner/VPM News)

On March 3, a coalition of Black University of Richmond students gave an April 1 deadline to address racial discrimination and equity issues on campus.

Students said they’d end all official relationships with the school if administration didn’t meet a list of demands, including removing the names of segregationist Douglas Southall Freeman and pro-slavery Rev. Robert Ryland, the first university president, from two on-campus buildings.

The university reaffirmed its commitment to keeping the names on the buildings in an email from university President Ronald Crutcher, sent March 17, and students and student organizations responded by beginning to disaffiliate on March 25, a week earlier than their original deadline.

In a statement, the Board of Trustees supported Crutcher’s email, and announced the names would not be removed, saying  they “understand the disappointment and hurt associated with our decision.” However, they ultimately decided that removal would be “inconsistent with the pursuit of our educational mission.”

Sophomore Lexi Cobbs says she was shocked and confused by the decision and reasoning.

“Like what does that mean,” she asked. “My and other students feeling safe and supported isn’t part of your educational mission?”

The Faculties of the Departments of Classical Studies, English, History, and Philosophy, referring to themselves as “the four departments scheduled to move into a building now named to honor a man who enslaved other human beings,” also questioned the notion that removing the names was “inconsistent” in a statement released March 30.

“We argue instead that a principal aim of work in the Humanities is to uncover and contend with the moral wrongs of the past, helping to chart a future in which all people equitably share,” reads the statement. “Surely there are ways to recognize the important contributions that Robert Ryland made to the establishment of Richmond College that do not require our Black students, staff, and faculty to study and work in a building whose name honors a person who would have viewed them as subhuman property.”

The Collegian, a University of Richmond student-run publication, reported over 90 student organizations have disaffiliated.  As of today, 127 individuals have signed the disaffiliation registry. 

Members of the Black Student Coalition met with the Board of Trustees and faculty members, while others held a silent protest outside the building, the day after disaffiliation began. Members of the coalition say the board was unwilling to listen to them and had no interest in making meaningful changes.

Junior Jordyn Lofton compared the meeting to a “fever dream.”

“It’s probably ten times worse than you can imagine,” she said. “It felt like one of those dreams where you can’t say anything but you’re screaming so loud and you know what you want to say but no one can hear you. It was just like we were screaming into a void.”

Sophomore Simone Reid said all the meeting did was remind them there is still a long road ahead for students, staff and faculty who want the names off the buildings.

“Coming out of it there’s this newly energized anger,” Reid said. “But also this feeling that we just did a months worth of work and still have so much more to go.”

On March 30, the university’s Faculty Senate issued a statement which supported the students’ memory of the meeting and asked the university to comply with their demands. Multiple departments have released similar statements of support since. 

This includes the School of Arts & Sciences, the largest of the university’s five schools, and the Music Department. As part of their statement, music department faculty and students say they  will break the decades long tradition of playing at university graduation ceremonies in solidarity with the Black Student Coalition. 

But even with the campus-wide faculty statements of solidarity, the board still refuses to remove the names.

Students say they’re discouraged, but not giving up.

“This is only the beginning of this fight,” Lofton said. “But it's disheartening to know that even with all the students and faculty behind us, it's still not enough.”

Lofton said the resistance wasn’t unexpected. “We definitely knew there was going to be a high chance of them rejecting us,” Lofton said. “But once we started disaffiliating we knew we just opened us a whole can of worms and that more work needed to be done.”

Shira Greer, an author of the original Protect our Web document that called for supporting  Black students, shared Lofton’s perspective.  “I definitely wasn’t surprised,” she said. “I knew going into this meeting that it was really just a formality.”

Like others we spoke to, Greer principally blamed Paul Queally, rector of the Board of Trustees. 

“I really didn’t get a sense of what any of the other board members thought,” she said. “It’s brought up some questions as to whether or not the other members feel the same way as he does or if he’s the one bulldozing this all through.”

Greer says Queally ran the meeting. “He called the shots, he said what he wanted to say,” she said. “And he let us speak when he wanted us to speak, and it felt so draining and like we were talking in circles.”

In an emailed statement, the university told VPM it was committed to advancing dialogue on campus.

“We appreciate that our students, faculty, and staff are continuing this conversation about race, justice, fairness, and inclusion, challenges that the University has been committed to confronting, especially under the leadership of President Crutcher,” the statement read. “We will continue to advance this dialog and our various initiatives toward a common goal of ensuring that all Spiders feel valued and know that they belong at UR.”

But the students say the school is taking credit for their initiatives.

“The things they said they’re giving us were all student led,” Lofton said. “You ‘gave’ us something that you didn’t even curate, so what does that mean?”

Both during the meeting and in the March 17 email, a campus  multicultural center was offered as a resource for students upset by the decision.  

Reid says the center is just a way for the administration to divert attention from the trauma and stress Black students have experienced.

“There’s no way they can repent in this large well of bad things that have happened to us on this campus and things that we’re unhappy about,” Reid said. “There is no multicultural space, no amount of this or that, [that] will rectify that.”

But, she says the university has an easy path to begin healing: “It all starts with changing the names.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Jordyn Lofton's name. It has been corrected.