University of Richmond Community in Turmoil Over Building Names
By Madyson Fitzgerald
On February 25, University of Richmond President Ronald A. Crutcher sent a letter to the university community, announcing that the board of trustees had reached a decision on renaming Ryland and Freeman halls: They refused to remove the controversial names in question.
Named after Robert Ryland and Douglas Southall Freeman, the first being a former enslaver and the latter a segregationist, UR’s student governments passed a joint resolution in 2019 to change the names of the buildings named after them. President Crutcher wrote in his letter that he and the board had decided to do this through a “braided narrative.”
As a result, neither of the names were removed. Instead, Ryland Hall would have a new Humanities Commons terrace, named after a former enslaved person, and Freeman would become Mitchell-Freeman Hall, honoring John Mitchell Jr., a former enslaved person who became editor of the African American newspaper the Richmond Planet.
The reaction was almost immediate. Students, faculty and staff members voiced outrage over the decision not to change the names, and moreover, belittle the role of former enslaved persons. The pushback was so strong that, on March 4, a statement was released on behalf of the Black students at Richmond.
Titled “Protect Our Web: A Statement on Black Student Welfare,” the statement read, “As Black students at the University of Richmond, we have felt the cold face of disregard time and time again.”
We look on from the margins as this institution, which claims to be invested in ‘diversity, equity, and inclusion,’ continuously betrays the interests of Black students. Though we have pledged our labor, time, and dedication to UR, this is not a reciprocal relationship.”
“Protect Our Web” would go on to become the common name for the movement. The statement was published by what would later be named the Black Student Coalition, with three demands in mind: to change the names of the buildings, to receive better academic accommodations for the COVID-19 pandemic and to be reimbursed for off-campus mental health services for Black students.
When the statement was first published, a little over 100 Black students had signed the petition in support of the movement. Just days later, the petition had reached over 500 signatories.
In the weeks that followed, the Black Student Coalition organized various acts of protests, including a call for disaffiliation among students’ organizations and alumni, virtual “teach-ins” to expand on Richmond’s history of white supremacy, and in partnership with the faculty, participated in a silent protest outside one of the board’s meetings.
At that meeting, Rector Paul Queally was reported by several students in attendance to have a “dismissive and overall disrespectful rhetoric,” according to a statement put out by the Black Student Coalition later that day. Soon after, the Faculty Senate voted unanimously on a motion to censure Queally as a result of his actions.
“I just feel like he made it very obvious that his interest was not really in improving things for us,” said junior Kristen Starks, a member of the Black Student Coalition’s coordinating committee.
“I fully believe that I came to UR to be a student and all the other things that come with being a student, but not to organize against my school, especially for things basic as disrespecting Black students,” Starks continued.
Rising junior Shira Greer, another member of the BSC’s coordinating committee, voiced similar sentiments, and said she pushes forward for the future. “We’re very concerned with making sure that we build a foundation and leave this place better than we found it,” Greer said, “for Black students and other students of color who are going to come after us.”
On Monday, the board announced in a statement that it would be suspending the building renaming process: “The board is reviewing options for a broader, more inclusive process to determine how decisions are made about questions of renaming, and we expect to communicate our plans shortly.”
Members of the UR community are still in favor of removing the names of Ryland and Freeman, and the BSC has expanded their demands to include more concerns raised by Black students on campus.
“I feel like a lot of this is also just getting a seat at the table,” said first-year Amarachi Ugochukwu. “We’ve been asking for a seat at the table, and we’ve been asking for our voices to be heard. And you know what? If they’re not going to give us a seat at the table, we’re going to take our own plastic chair and sit and listen and talk.”
Simone Reid, a UR sophomore, said that the board’s decision to suspend the renaming process — and a furtive statement that UR’s annual Giving Day would be postponed — revealed that the pressure applied by the community was working.
“I think if we keep showing out and keep bringing the most amount of pressure and energy that we can, we can really get our demands solved and rectified and addressed,” Reid said while attending a BSC protest Wednesday. “If they can release an action plan to meet our demands, then we’ll really be happy and satisfied with the work that we’ve done.”
Zach Perkins, a 2020 graduate who participated in Wednesday’s protest, said that the board’s decisions would set the path for the future. “The board needs to make decisions to see who they’re going to align with in the future, whether it’s the students, faculty and the campus community or their own interests at this time,” Perkins said.