RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The University of Richmond Board of Trustees reversed course this weekend, announcing Monday that it would be removing the names of six buildings from its campus, which paid tribute to former slave owners and segregationists, effective immediately.

Almost exactly one year ago, the Board was facing backlash from the campus community over its refusal to change the names of Ryland Hall and Mitchell-Freeman Hall.

Rev. Robert Ryland, for whom Ryland Hall was named, built what would become the University of Richmond from the ground up, according to a historical update to the university community from then-president Dr. Ronald Crutcher. Researchers found that he served as principal of Virginia Baptist Seminary in Henrico County from 1832 to 1840, and then as the first president of Richmond College from 1840 to 1866. He was also pastor of Richmond’s First African Baptist Church.

But, by the time Ryland assumed leadership of what would become the University of Richmond, the report stated, “he was both enslaving people and hiring them out, leasing their labor to others for profit,” including to Virginia Baptist Seminary and Richmond College. By 1860, Ryland had personally enslaved more than two dozen men, women and children.

Freeman Hall was named for Dr. Douglas Southhall Freeman. On Feb. 24, 2021, the Board of Trustees approved Crutcher’s recommendation to rename the building to Mitchell-Freeman Hall. According to a statement from the university, this was done “to honor the life and work of John Mitchell Jr.”

Mitchell, who lived from 1863 to 1929, was a former slave who became the editor of the Richmond Planet, an African American newspaper founded in 1882 by 13 people who were previously enslaved. Until Monday, the upperclassmen residential hall still retained the name of Freeman.

Considered an exemplar of academic excellence in his time, Freeman graduated from Richmond College at age 18 and earned his Ph.D. in history at Johns Hopkins University. He garnered national recognition as a historian for his Pulitzer Prize-winning biographies of Robert E. Lee and George Washington.

However, research showed that Freeman also glorified the Confederacy, promoted segregation and the disenfranchisement of Blacks and advocated for eugenics.

“Names are very symbolic, and I think they speak to what the university cares about and the university’s values,” senior Jordyn Lofton told 8News on Tuesday. “The names that were on these buildings that have since gotten taken down didn’t match with the university’s values, or, at least, what we thought the university’s values should be.”

Lofton is a member of the Black Student Coalition, a group that has been advocating for a list of six demands, which include the removal of the names of Ryland and Freeman from buildings on campus. She was also the sole student representative on the university’s Naming Principles Commission.

Last spring, the Board suspended the decisions relating to Ryland Hall and Mitchell-Freeman Hall, after initially refusing to remove the names. Soon after, the Naming Principles Commission was created. They were tasked with developing and recommending principles to guide future decisions about naming and removal or modification of names for buildings, professorships, programs and other named entities at the University of Richmond.

According to a message to the school community, at the Board of Trustees meeting on Feb. 25, Commission members discussed draft recommendations and the process that informed their development. Following a review of these recommendations, the Board met on Saturday and voted unanimously in favor of their adoption.

“Given the clarity of the principles, and the extensive research previously conducted into the lives and work of Robert Ryland and Douglas Southall Freeman, the Board also voted to remove the names of Ryland Hall and Freeman Hall,” the letter from President Hallock and Board of Trustees said. “In addition, as part of its consideration of the draft principles, the Board requested research into other buildings named for individuals who were enslavers. Four additional buildings were identified: Jeter Hall, Thomas Hall, Brunet Hall, and Puryear Hall. Accordingly, the Board voted to remove the names from those four buildings.”

Within hours of the message going out to the university community, Lofton said that the names of the buildings in question had either been removed or covered up. On Tuesday, Spiders banners could be seen covering the names of buildings that were etched in stone.

“I didn’t know that they were going to do it that quickly,” Lofton said. “I had a gut feeling that Mitchell-Freeman and Ryland were going to come down. But I had no idea about the other four names. So it was definitely shock. I definitely got emotional because it was a long time coming.”

According to the university, the buildings have been given temporary names:

  • Sarah Brunet Memorial Hall — The Refectory
  • Freeman Hall — Residence Hall No. 3
  • Jeter Hall — Residence Hall No. 1
  • Bennet Puryear Hall — Fountain Hall
  • Ryland Hall — Humanities Building
  • James Thomas, Jr. Memorial Hall — Residence Hall No. 2

“Them removing the names and putting the interim is giving space for there to be a long-term, inclusive process on how to name buildings,” Lofton said. “In the future, in the near future, we hope to have community members be able to present to the Board and present to President Hallock what they think these buildings should be named after.”

The university also issued a statement on the decision, which noted that the process was difficult.

“We recognize that not all members of our community will agree with these decisions. And we recognize that the University would not exist today without the efforts of some whose names we have removed,” the statement said.

“The Board’s decision to adopt the principles and remove building names, while ultimately unanimous, was extremely challenging. Members of the Board began this process with strongly held differences of opinion, and the subsequent discussions were candid, thoughtful, and constructive. In the end, the Board concluded that the decisions outlined above are the best course of action for the University.”

Lofton said that while she is not currently aware of a timeline for the next steps in this process, there have already been conversations with President Hallock about the formation of a more long-term commission to gather community input on naming and renaming moving forward.

“We might not have the same idea of how this should be resolved, but it should be resolved,” Lofton said. “It’s a start for a new beginning, it’s a start for something greater to happen, and I think this is only the beginning of the transformation of the university.”