The leaders in question were the Rev. Robert Ryland, an enslaver who was the school’s founding president, and Douglas Southall Freeman, who advocated racial segregation and eugenics and was a prominent university trustee.
Explaining the decision, Richmond’s trustees and president said keeping the names of Ryland and Freeman will help the campus tell its full and often painful history with slavery and segregation. But many students and faculty say the two names are antithetical to the values of diversity and inclusion and must be removed.
University President Ronald A. Crutcher, who is the first African American to hold the position, said in a telephone interview he is skeptical that removing the names — or “canceling them out,” as he put it — would solve the educational challenge. He favors adding context to the names and telling their complete story.
“My goal is to ensure that we as a university community grapple with the complexities of our history in ways that we’ve never done before,” Crutcher said. “It will get messy when you’re honest and you’re telling the good, the bad and the ugly.”
But dissent is growing at the 3,900-student private liberal arts school. A group called the Black Student Coalition, which opposes the university’s policy on the Freeman and Ryland names, called for students, faculty and staff to “disaffiliate” from university-connected extracurricular activities unless the decision is reversed. By Thursday, the student news outlet the Collegian reported that more than 80 student groups had posted disaffiliation plans in support of the coalition.
On March 19, the faculty senate passed a resolution urging the university to strike the names. The resolution said the issue 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.”
Two professors, Kathleen Skerrett and Jane Berry, said they circulated a letter opposed to keeping the names that drew more than 200 signatures from staff and faculty. “We think the names have to come down because they dishonor the community we have tried to build here in the 21st century,” said Skerrett, a former dean of arts and sciences, who is White.
Simone Reid, 19, a sophomore who is Black, said many students are angry at the trustees and question the notion that the names are educationally useful. ″We know it’s point-blank wrong,” Reid said. The issue is huge, she said, for a school that carries the name of the capital of the old Confederacy. “It’s just a picture of white supremacy that not only is in the past, but it’s being actively defended.”
University-sponsored research uncovered new details about Ryland and Freeman in reports released in February. Crutcher commissioned the reports in 2019 on the recommendation of a commission exploring Richmond’s institutional history and identity. Students also had pushed the school to scrutinize Ryland and Freeman.
Ryland, a Baptist minister, was the founding president of what was then known as Richmond College, from 1840 to 1866. He enslaved 15 people just before the Civil War and declared in 1858 that he had never freed any people held in bondage and had no designs to do so. “I do not think emancipation safe or humane to either master or servant,” he wrote. Historians say the college paid Ryland for the labor of people he enslaved.
Freeman, a historian, was a leading trustee of the university in the first half of the 20th century. He supported racial segregation, opposed interracial marriage and promoted racist concepts underlying the eugenics movement. The “greatest inheritance,” he once declared, was “clean blood, right-thinking ancestry.”
Despite such findings, the board of trustees decided to keep the names. Removing them, the board said in a March 17 statement, would be “inconsistent with the pursuit of our educational mission.”
Trustees said they “understand the disappointment and hurt” the decision provoked. They did take one step to alter the name of the 86-bed dormitory long known as Freeman Hall. It is now Mitchell-Freeman Hall, adding to the building the surname of African American newspaper editor John Mitchell Jr.
Born enslaved, Mitchell frequently challenged Freeman on civil rights. Crutcher lauded Mitchell’s courageous example and said he had spoken with descendants of Mitchell who support the move. But critics say it is an affront to Mitchell’s legacy to pair his name with Freeman’s. “No way equal,” the Richmond Free Press wrote in a Feb. 25 editorial.
In another step, trustees said, a terrace at the academic building known as Ryland Hall will be named for an enslaved person or people connected with the Richmond community whose names have been brought to light through recent research. “Future work will ensure recognition on campus of milestones and pathbreakers not presently part of our institutional narrative,” the statement said. The hall is named for the founding president as well as a nephew of Ryland who was a librarian.
Over the past several years, numerous colleges and universities have reexamined the landscapes of their campuses in light of the surging national movement for racial justice. Plaques, monuments and building names associated with slavery, the Confederacy, segregation, eugenics and white supremacy have come under unprecedented scrutiny from institutions that had long overlooked, played down or ignored the messages they conveyed.
In 2015, Georgetown University stripped from two buildings the names of early school presidents, both Jesuit priests, who had orchestrated the sale of enslaved people in 1838 to help the struggling school pay off debts. Subsequently, the university named one of the buildings on its D.C. campus for Isaac Hawkins, an enslaved man whom the Jesuits sold, and the other for pioneering Black educator Anne Marie Becraft.
In 2020, Princeton University removed Woodrow Wilson’s name from a college and its school of public and international affairs. Wilson was a prominent Princeton president before his election as the 28th U.S. president. Princeton initially resisted calls to strike his name. But the university concluded Wilson’s pro-segregation “racism was significant and consequential even by the standards of his own time.”
In January, the California Institute of Technology announced it will rename buildings and other campus assets that had honored an early 20th-century leader of the institute and several others who backed the discredited eugenics movement.
In February, James Madison University renamed three buildings for African Americans who made significant contributions to the public institution in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Previously, all three had been named for Confederate military leaders.
Those are a few examples among many of a movement that is reshaping the way higher education presents itself to the world. Richmond, too, counts itself a participant in the reckoning. But the university has staked out a distinctive position.
Crutcher said he supports the board’s decision. His goal is to establish a “braided narrative” on campus that highlights stories that shaped the university. Citing his own life experience as the descendant of enslaved people, Crutcher said: “To me, this issue of dealing with our own history honestly and with courage is critically important to me as an educator and as a human being. And I think that if we fail to do that, then we as a university have failed.”
Ryland also was longtime pastor of First African Baptist Church in Richmond, a congregation that included enslaved people. “We wouldn’t exist today were it not for Rev. Ryland,” Crutcher said. “For a man of his times, he did some really good things.”
Crutcher said he was “less comfortable” with Freeman. Author of Pulitzer Prize-winning biographies of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and President George Washington, Freeman was a public intellectual whose writings influenced the glorification of the Confederacy as the “Lost Cause.” He also was university rector from 1934 to 1950.
In a Feb. 25 letter to the university community, Crutcher said Richmond will mark Freeman’s “achievements and dedication to the University, while also openly recognizing his racist beliefs and advocacy for segregation and eugenics.”
Crutcher, 74, is scheduled to retire this summer after a six-year run as president. He said he is one of two African Americans on the 25-member board of trustees. Another trustee is from Guatemala. “The board is not very diverse,” Crutcher acknowledged.
Crutcher said the board has made up its mind. “The board has been fairly clear about their perspective — that they’re not going to revisit it at this time,” he said.
Paul B. Queally, a 1986 Richmond graduate, leads the board as university rector. His surname appears on three campus structures, according to a campus map. The university said that he was unavailable for an interview and that the board would not elaborate on its statement. Queally, of Palm Beach, Fla., did not respond to an email this week seeking comment.
Of 3,200 undergraduates at Richmond in fall 2019, federal data show, about 7 percent identified as Black or African American. Another 7 percent were of Asian descent, 9 percent Latino or Hispanic, 4 percent multiracial and 11 percent international.
Lauren Stenson, 21, a junior from Atlanta who is Black, said she sympathizes with Crutcher but believes the board has taken the wrong position. “I’m trying to not become too pessimistic about the campus as a whole, but I’m disheartened and disappointed,” Stenson said. “I want better for the students that go here.”
Stenson said she is active in a campus group seeking progressive dialogue on race and equity issues. As long as Richmond keeps Ryland and Freeman on its buildings, she said, the controversy will continue. “I don’t think it’s going to die down and go away,” she said. “Students will continue to push.”
This story has been updated.