University of Richmond faces backlash over refusal to change building names honoring slave owner, segregationist

Richmond

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Students at the University of Richmond are doubling down on their demands for change after the Board of Trustees and President Dr. Ronald Crutcher each issued statements asserting that the names of building on campus paying homage to a slave owner and a segregationist would not be changed.

The buildings in question are Ryland Hall, which is undergoing construction, and Mitchell-Freeman Hall.

University of Richmond sophomore Simone Reid is a member of the Black Student Coalition. When the Board issued its decision not to change the names of the two buildings, she said it felt like students’ voices didn’t matter.

“I definitely feel uncomfortable. It’s definitely another reminder, especially in that, on campus, it feels very segregated, feels very suffocating,” Reid said. “We feel isolated, and then on top of that, we have to walk around and see that not even reflected in the names. Like there’s no respect for us reflected in the actual physical landscape of the school.”

According to a historical update to the university community from Crutcher, Rev. Robert Ryland, for whom Ryland Hall is named, built what would become the University of Richmond from the ground up. 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.

But the upperclassmen residential hall still retains 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 disenfranchisement of Blacks and advocated for eugenics.

“It feels like, honestly, that we go to a different school than the white students. It feels like we’re in two completely different realities, two completely different Richmonds,” Reid said. “In a perfect world, I’d love to see students of color at Richmond be able to live and not have that constant stress, that constant feeling that you don’t belong, that you’re not welcome here, and then also just being able to be a student.”

Reid was joined by University of Richmond freshman Katiana Isaac, also a member of the Black Student Coalition. Both women said that they had experienced instances of racism.

“I’ve been uncomfortable in multiple situations, mainly walking past buildings that represent things that the University of Richmond says that they no longer agree with. But those are still symbols that are being directly put not only in front of my face, but also the faces of my peers,” Isaac said.

Black students at the University of Richmond recently issued a list of demands to university leadership in a movement being called Protect Our Web. An online petition in support of the changes has garnered more than 1,000 signatures as of Tuesday afternoon from students, faculty and staff.

Senior Anthony Polcari resigned from his position as president of the Richmond College Student Government Association on Sunday in response to the Board’s decision. 

The University Faculty Senate voted Friday to appease one of the demands for a proposal that would allow students to elect to take one class this semester on a one credit-no grade option, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Having a credit/no credit option will address the unending pressure of achieving highly without rest, which has contributed to towering amounts of stress,” the statement said.

Protect Our Web also called for more mental health services for Black students and name changes for Ryland Hall and Mitchell-Freeman Hall. The University Faculty Senate issued statements of support for these additional demands:

What we have learned over the last few weeks is that our community overwhelmingly regards continuing to honor men such as Ryland and Freeman as fundamentally contradicting the university’s stated commitment to become a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable academic community. We did not necessarily anticipate this reaction when the university first announced its approach to this issue last month, but the community has spoken clearly. In short, the issue of the building names has become a stumbling block to the hard work ahead to meet our goals and aspirations as a university community. Indeed, for some students it has raised the existential question of whether the university cares about them or people like them. And that is a question no college student in 2021 should ever have to ask about their institution.

Statement of University of Richmond Faculty Senate on Institutional History
Adopted, March 19, 2021

Reid and Isaac came to the University of Richmond from Massachusetts and New Jersey, respectively. Issac said that financial support from the university made it possible for her to pursue higher education.

“For a lot of people, myself included, we didn’t know that it was going to be like that when we got here,” Reid said. “I knew a PWI [predominantly white institution] was going to be interesting, but I didn’t think it was going to be to the point where we didn’t feel comfortable, where we feel invisible and we feel like our voices aren’t heard.”

In its statement explaining the decision to retain the names of Ryland and Freeman on University of Richmond campus buildings, the Board of Trustees said that it understood the disappointment and hurt that students might feel as a result.

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. We also share President Crutcher’s view that the University’s commitment to a more accurate and inclusive history must be manifest in visible ways on our campus. The Board unanimously supports recognizing permanently in Ryland Hall the names of those enslaved by Robert Ryland and those hired out to Richmond College, naming the Humanities Commons Terrace in honor of an enslaved person or persons whose names were recovered through the research into the Ryland era, and adding John Mitchell Jr.’s name to Mitchell-Freeman Hall. Future work will ensure recognition on campus of milestones and pathbreakers not presently part of our institutional narrative. 

Statement from the Board of Trustees
March, 17, 2021

However, Reid said that the official response from the Board was insufficient.

“We definitely felt like that was very dismissive and flippant, and for me, what stuck out to me was how they didn’t explain why,” Reid said. “They said it doesn’t align with their educational mission. But what is that mission? Is your mission to exclude Black students? Is your mission to make us not feel comfortable here? Because you’ve succeeded.”

Reid said that it’s difficult to be surrounded by institutions similar to the University of Richmond where history is being recognized and names are being changed, while her own alma mater is not following suit.

“Names are, at the end of the day, a very symbolic decision. So it’s like, symbolically, they’re not even willing to stand behind us,” Reid said. “The tide is changing. There are so many of our peer institutions that are doing this, so many, just in Richmond, this is happening. So it’s not like it’s a unique thing. It’s not like it’s a groundbreaking thing.”

Students held a virtual teach-in via Zoom on Friday in protest of the Board’s decision. Isaac said she hopes that they will finally be heard after a demonstration this Thursday, during which students will withdraw from activities.

“We’re moving toward disaffiliation,” Isaac said. “Our official date is March 25, this Thursday, and that means all students in solidarity with the Black Student Coalition will be disaffiliating from university task resources, clubs, activities, student governments, things like that.”

Isaac, who plans to major in Africana Studies and minor in Environmental Studies, said that she wouldn’t wish this experience on anyone else.

“Racially insensitive history such as slavery and segregation is meant to be remembered, not celebrated,” she said. “By having those names remain on the building, that means that Ryland and Freeman, they’re deserving of honor when they’re not, and having those names stay up there, it means that they’re complacent and that they’re willing to uphold white supremacy.”

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