When Shae Omonijo started as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, she ate most of her meals surrounded by large portraits of white men, famous founders and illustrious graduates of the college. Compared with back home in Baltimore, where many black leaders and activists are honored in public spaces, it seemed strange.
Her friend Asya Akca had been struck by the lack of statues honoring women at home in Louisville. Over the years, through friendship, research and sheer doggedness, the two found a way to help make the center of student life at Chicago better reflect the campus.
Last month, a sculpture of the first black woman to earn a doctorate at the prestigious university was unveiled.
At a time when so much attention focuses on efforts to tear down Confederate memorials and other markers, some universities and students are commissioning and creating new testaments to the past, challenging people to view the institution’s history through a more complicated and nuanced lens.
“There are,” Akca said, “so many stories that aren’t told here.”
It’s part of an evolving conversation nationally, said Stephanie Meeks of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, “about the way our collective past is reflected in our cultural landscape, our public spaces, our college campuses. We see different institutions wrestling with this question of difficult history, or missing history, in different ways.” The National Trust, for example, announced last month an effort to preserve important and overlooked sites in African American history.
“We’re at an important inflection point in our nation,” Meeks said.
In some places, monuments are being torn down, as at Duke University, where officials removed a sculpture of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in the days after a white-nationalist rally turned violent in Charlottesville.
In some places, such as the University of Mississippi, monuments remain in place but with greater explanation of the broader context. In others, names of buildings are changed, as at Yale University, where a residential college that long honored John C. Calhoun, a graduate who was a U.S. vice president and an ardent advocate of slavery, is now known for Grace Hopper, a graduate who was a pioneering mathematician and computer scientist.
And at other schools, people are creating something entirely new.
In June, the University of Virginia announced plans for a large and visible memorial to commemorate the estimated 5,000 enslaved people who helped build and take care of the school in its early years.
At Princeton University, student activists a couple of years ago demanded the name of former U.S. and university president Woodrow Wilson be stripped from buildings because of his support for segregation. The name remains, but an effort, endorsed by trustees, grew to diversify the art and iconography on campus, including considering commissioning pieces that honor people who helped to make the school more inclusive. This fall, a committee began considering nominations for new portraits. Recently, works have been commissioned from artists, including a two-part outdoor piece by Maya Lin.
A wall-size photo of Wilson was removed from a dining hall, to be replaced by a new commissioned piece of art that’s more reflective of the university as it is today. In Wilson College, a residential college, something will probably be created that delves into the namesake’s complicated legacy, said James Steward, director of the Princeton University Art Museum.
Martha Sandweiss, a professor of history and the founder and director of the Princeton & Slavery Project, began delving into the university’s past with her students in 2013. But as a former museum director, she was aware of both the power and the limitations of academic research. In scholarship, she said, “they have to live and die by their footnotes.” She contacted artists who could bring that history more vividly to life.
Recently, plays were performed (to sold-out audiences, Sandweiss said) that had been written by playwrights given access to the Princeton & Slavery research. And an eight-foot-tall sculpture stands, until mid-December, in front of the historical home of early Princeton presidents.
The sculpture, by Titus Kaphar and commissioned by the Princeton University Art Museum, layers portraits of the school president from 1761 to 1766 with those of a black man, woman and child. They represent the slaves who worked at the president’s home and those who were sold at auction on that site.
It’s in a prominent setting — clearly visible to people walking out of the J. Crew store across the street, Sandweiss said, or waiting at a bus station — and a powerful one, given the history.
It has internal lighting, so as dusk falls the sculpture changes, transforming from one in which a sketch of enslaved people is seen over a silhouette of a man’s face. “At night, his presence comes out and exists there along with the images of the people that were sold,” Sandweiss said. “Those two worlds coexisted uneasily.”
Steward sees the piece as “an anti-monument,” both literally — because it’s a carving in relief overlaid by a ghostlike image — and figuratively, because it presents complications rather than just honoring a man. It reinforces the idea that “we constantly rewrite our histories,” he said. “That’s a very different impulse than most public monuments.” He remembers seeing, as an 18-year-old first-year student at the University of Virginia, the Confederate monuments in Charlottesville at the center of violent clashes this summer.
At the University of Chicago, Akca and Omonijo found the women they wanted to honor by chance, through a coincidence that makes them laugh. Both political science majors, they often talked about their research. Omonijo told Akca how her work in the archives had led her to a black woman who was forced out because of her race many decades before.
She knew there was a dean who had supported that student, Georgiana Simpson, despite complaints by some white students, but didn’t know the dean’s name. Akca did.
“Dean Marion Talbot!” Akca told her. Talbot, the historical figure who most inspired Akca at the school, a female administrator at a time when that was rare, had been directly involved in a pivotal point in the history of Simpson, the person who most inspired her friend. “That was an amazing moment,” Akca said.
Despite Talbot’s attempt to help Simpson, Harry Pratt Judson, the president of the university in 1907, decided Simpson must live off campus.
Simpson continued her education despite that, earned her doctorate and went on to join the faculty of Howard University.
The two friends created the Monumental Women Project, hoping to honor Simpson and Talbot, starting with Simpson.
Monuments matter, they argue; leaving something behind, a lasting legacy, means stories aren’t hidden, and a more complete history can be told.
After raising nearly $50,000, selecting an artist and earning support from administrators, Akca and Omonijo chose a location for the sculpture. The bust of Simpson now stands in the former men’s club of the university, facing a sculpture of the president who chose to exclude her, Judson.