Colleges sanitizing remnants of white supremacy on their campuses isn’t progress
It’s impossible not to also read universities removing these reminders of their anti-Black past as a hurried form of white erasure.
By Gloria Oladipo
My school, Cornell University, has tried very hard to help me forget that it once housed a plantation. My school, along with many other universities across the country, has continually tried to sanitize their campuses of overt references to American slavery while still allowing covert examples of anti-Blackness to flourish.
I had been a student at Cornell for nearly two years without realizing the “Cornell Botanical Gardens,” a sprawling, 3,500 acre arboretum, had once been referred to as the “Cornell Plantations.” To be clear, the garden was not a former slave plantation, but it wasn’t distinguishable from the many other slave plantations leftover from the Antebellum period if you didn’t know its history and only read its name. In 2016, to better illustrate the work done at the university’s garden, and also because of the constant associations being made between the property and American slavery, Cornell renamed it. The next year, a Black student was called racial slurs and beaten by a member of a white fraternity.
Several universities across America are in conversation about how to deal with remnants of slavery on their campuses and coming up with different solutions. At the University of Texas in Austin, administrators removed a statue of Jefferson Davis from a main entrance on campus after student outcry. Vanderbilt University bought back their Confederate Memorial Hall, a dormitory on campus gifted by the Tennessee chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, just to remove the word “confederate” from its title. Yale University renamed a resident college after it had originally been titled “Calhoun College,” in reference to white supremacist and South Carolina politician John C. Calhoun. University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill changed the name of a campus hall that had been named after William Saunders, a KKK organizer.
The response of universities to remnants of American slavery on their campus is something I approach dialectically. On one hand, I am grateful that such symbolism is finally being removed after decades of outcry. The daily psychological violence of Black students having to confront the fact that their education is made possible by a legacy of forced slavery is hard to deal with everyday. It only further reifies that we do not belong, that our placement in such colleges is abnormal and even absurd.
However, it’s impossible not to also read universities removing these reminders of their anti-Black past as a hurried form of white erasure. When universities quickly and quietly remove remnants of slavery from their campuses, it is a distancing from their past (and present), their own legacies of brutality and oppression. The University of Texas once celebrated Confederate leaders. Vanderbilt had dealings with Confederate sympathizers. Trying to walk away from these truths by removing signs compared to recognizing their history is a way of shielding their eyes, as if to say, “no, that can’t be us.”
Moreover, who’s to say that these remnants of slavery and anti-Blackness are only residues of the past, especially when many universities are still hotbeds for racist behavior and actions? The University of Texas has only recently started discussing the fact that their school’s song, “The Eyes of Texas”, was first performed at a minstrel show. Since July of last year, Vanderbilt has had repeated instances of racist and homophobic messages being circulated to students, faculty, and staff.
A professor at the University of Texas in San Antonio called the campus police on a Black student for putting her feet up on the chair in front of her, joining a collection of other schools, including Yale, that have weaponized the police against Black students. The Board of Trustees at UNC-Chapel Hill, since changing the name of Saunders Hall, has passed an amendment to prevent future name changes such as one for their Aycock Residence Hall, named after white supremacist and former North Carolina governor Charles Aycock.
Cornell’s garden wasn’t an actual plantation, so changing the name in some capacity made sense. But what does it say about the university to select a name like that in the first place, one with clear racial overtones? Moreover, what about all the other examples of anti-Blackness that the university, and universities just like it, continue to brush off?
What about the fact that Jack Greenwood’s only form of discipline for using racial slurs and beating a Black student was 75 hours in community service? What about the fact that there was no education for him to explain the impact and historical context of his actions, or consideration for what the victim wanted? What about the white fraternity member who chanted “Build a Wall” near the Latino Living Center less than 24 hours after Trump announced his desire to end DACA? What about the examples upon examples of racist macro and micro aggressions that affect Black and Brown students daily?
Campuses must find a way to remove anti-Black symbols from campus while also acknowledging and actively working to challenge and rectify their historical legacy.
The University of Texas school system, upon removing the Jefferson Davis statue, administration, rather than destroying the statue and moving on, placed it in its Briscoe Center for American History under an exhibit entitled “From Commemoration to Education”. The exhibit, rather than celebrating Davis, acknowledges the role Davis played in the South’s economy while also discussing his anti-Black actions and the circumstances around the statue’s removal.
While many may regard this as a happy middle ground between removing reminders of slavery on campus and honoring one’s history, still more must be done to deal with anti-Blackness as it functions systematically at the school and in other institutions. For example, what explanation does the University of Texas at Austin provide for their school having Black students make up only 10% of their general population? Is their solution one that recognizes systematic barriers, such as the inherent lack of resources for Black students or a color-blind approach? How about the fact that Black faculty only make up 4.1% of the University of Texas at Austin faculty?
While removing statues and disavowing historical figures once celebrated are all well and good, universities also have a responsible to address institutional examples of anti-Blackness that happen on campus.
There is no point in universities trying to disguise their associations with slavery. While protecting Black students from constantly interacting with racist relics is important, honesty, accountability and correcting current injustices are also essential. Anything less than this is a performance of equality that only excuses and justifies anti-Black behavior on college campuses today.
Gloria Oladipo is a Black/Nigerian-American first year student at Cornell University. Based in Chicago, IL.