No way equal
2/25/2021, 6 p.m.
We cannot sit by without commenting on the announcement by the University of Richmond regarding its examination into possibly renaming two campus buildings that honor white supremacists who were instrumental in the school’s history.
UR President Ronald A. Crutcher has announced that the university will not change the name of Ryland Hall, an academic building, one wing of which is named for the Rev. Robert Ryland.
Instead, he said, the university will “turn our attention to vividly and fully telling there the story” of UR’s first president, a man of complexity, Dr. Crutcher said, who helped establish First African Baptist Church. He was a slaveowner who profited also by renting out some of his slaves to the university.
During the Civil War, Rev. Ryland invested his money in Confederate war bonds and convinced the college to do likewise with its endowment, sending both the school and himself into near bankruptcy when the South surrendered and the bonds became worthless.
Dr. Crutcher said the stories of the people Rev. Ryland enslaved also will be permanently recognized, including by naming an outdoor terrace for one or more whose histories have been recovered through university research.
Dr. Crutcher also announced that Freeman Hall, a dormitory named for journalist, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer and UR trustee Douglas Southall Freeman, a staunch segregationist and supporter of the eugenics movement, would be renamed Mitchell-Freeman Hall by adding the name of John Mitchell Jr., a Black newspaperman and businessman whose writings and work in the late 1800s and early 1900s were devoted to civil rights and anti-lynching efforts.
However well-intentioned the university’s efforts may be to squarely confront its racist roots, its unimpressive results are both tone-deaf and insulting to the honor and legacy of Mr. Mitchell. It is akin to the state’s abomination of adding Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to a holiday honoring Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.
Mr. Mitchell remains a human rights icon to this day in the Richmond community where he seemed to thrive despite forces that sought to keep Black people in subjugation. He was born enslaved in 1863 and his family remained after the Civil War at Laburnum, the plantation of their former owner, a lawyer and former member of the Confederate congress.
He taught school for a short while before becoming editor at age 21 of the Richmond Planet newspaper, a weekly publi- cation that crusaded for the equal rights and advancement of Richmond’s Black community, which was still being oppressed by white supremacy.
In 1904, when Mr. Freeman was just finishing his studies at Richmond College, UR’s forerunner, Mr. Mitchell was organiz- ing a boycott of the city’s segregated trolley system. While his efforts were not successful like the Montgomery bus boycott of 1954 in Alabama that was led by the Dr. King, Mr. Mitchell steered the Richmond boycott for two years until it finally ended with the bankruptcy of the company, whose remains became the launching pad for Dominion Energy.
While Mr. Freeman used the power of his pen to venerate Confederate traitor Robert E. Lee and to perpetuate the poisonous myth of white supremacy and Black inferiority, Mr. Mitchell railed in the Richmond Planet against lynchings of Black people. Mr. Mitchell urged people to stand strong and resist the abuses of discrimination and he put up his own money to help get a 15-year-old Black youth’s death sentence for allegedly raping a white woman commuted to 20 years in prison.
In addition to his writing, Mr. Mitchell got involved in business and politics to aid Black empowerment. He founded the Mechanics Savings Bank in 1901, represented the com- munity as a Richmond alderman and ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1921.
To link Mr. Mitchell’s name on a building with someone who devoted his life and talent to denying and denigrating the intelligence and humanity of Black people is an affront to Mr. Mitchell, offensive to Richmond’s Black community and a disservice to UR students who are sincere in their desire for a racial reckoning of UR’s past.
In April 2019, more than a year before people across metro Richmond and the nation woke up and took to the streets calling for a stop to racial injustice, UR student government groups passed a resolution insisting that the university change the names of the two buildings honoring Rev. Ryland and Mr. Freeman.
Their reason: “(B)oth have legacies intrinsically linked to the entrenchment and maintenance of white supremacy.”
The students called for the buildings’ names to be changed, while “preserving and publicly displaying information about the former names, the legacy of the individuals and the reason for the changes.”
This current effort, recommended by Dr. Crutcher and en- dorsed by the UR Board of Trustees, falls short of the expecta- tions and hopes of UR students. And it harms the populace of Richmond’s larger community by insinuating that Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Freeman have equal standing in the history of the struggle for human dignity. They do not.
It is akin to slightly moving the Confederate Lee statue on Monument Avenue to make room for a statue of abolitionist Fred- erick Douglass and believing everything is fine. It is not.
The only thing Robert E. Lee and Frederick Douglass had in common was that they both grew up on plantations. The same way the only thing Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Freeman have in common is that they both worked for newspapers. One only has to read what they wrote to see they don’t deserve equal standing. If anything, putting their names together on a building drags down Mr. Mitchell’s legacy and stature.
While the University of Richmond is a private institution and doesn’t have to answer to the state’s taxpayers, it has to consider the consequences of its actions on current and potential donors and its prospects for attracting new students.
We don’t want to speculate on the impact of Dr. Crutcher’s announcement. But with the widespread awareness and activism of young people of all backgrounds with the Black Lives Matter Movement during the past year, many are eyeing universities unafraid to take bold action to acknowledge and deal with the sins of the past and recognize, respect and embrace the diversity of today and tomorrow.
Perhaps Dr. Crutcher’s actions were limited by the will of the Board of Trustees and the changes the board would accept. If the board remains unwilling to remove the names of white supremacists from its buildings, then it should be ready to deal with the notoriety and consequences that brings.
Truly honoring Mr. Mitchell means more than slapping his name on a building for the sake of a possible class discussion or teachable moment. UR officials must understand that.