The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U. of Alabama activists renew a long conversation about race

Amanda Bennett, 21, a senior in English and African American studies at the University of Alabama, looks at a painting of the antebellum campus unveiled late last year inside Gorgas Library on the Tuscaloosa campus. On the left is an image of an enslaved carriage driver. (Photo by Evelyn Hockstein For The Washington Post)

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Colleges nationwide are reckoning anew with race and diversity this school year as students demand steps to curb incidents of hate and discrimination and promote a more inclusive campus culture. Protesters toppled leaders of the University of Missouri, who were perceived as unresponsive to their concerns. They also won agreement from Princeton to review how it honors Woodrow Wilson, a university president and U.S. president who was an advocate for racial segregation.

[U. Missouri president, chancellor resign over handling of racial incidents]

Here at the University of Alabama, a group of students and faculty has joined the movement. They call themselves “We are Done.”

“The University of Alabama is at a crucial period in its history,” the group says on its Facebook page. “While behind us lies decades of intolerance, exclusivity and inequity, in front of us lies the opportunity to create a campus that is welcoming of all students.”

[Princeton president and protesters reach accord]

The Alabama student news organization  the Crimson White reported in November that the group had 11 demands for the university’s administration. Among them: the creation of a division of diversity and equity within the administration, to be headed by a vice president or vice provost; and the removal of the names of white supremacists, members of the Ku Klux Klan, Confederate generals and eugenicists from classroom buildings, or the creation of markers to show the history of racism connected to those names.

University President Stuart R. Bell announced on Nov. 18, as the demands were released, that he would direct a strategic planning council to look at the addition of a “central diversity officer” and the development of a new diversity plan.

“While we are doing some good things, there is much work to be done to ensure a welcoming and inclusive campus where students from all backgrounds feel they belong and can be successful,” Bell said at the time. It was a crucial moment for the president, who took office in July. Bell, a native of Texas and a mechanical engineer, was previously provost at Louisiana State University.

[Alabama and other big public universities grow in out-of-state enrollment.]

The university in December took down a portrait of John Tyler Morgan from inside the namesake Morgan Hall, an academic building on the quad. Morgan, a brigadier general in the Confederacy who served in the U.S. Senate after the Civil War, was known as an ardent advocate of white supremacy and racial segregation.

Bell told The Washington Post that this conversation with students and faculty was crucial.

“If we don’t have the inclusion and diversity piece, we’ll never get to where we need to be,”  he said. Whether the university will rename any of its buildings remains unclear. “I don’t know that that will come out of the conversation,” Bell said.

Amanda Bennett, 21, a senior from Atlanta, is one of the organizers of We are Done. She said activists are tracking the administration’s actions closely. She said their questions are these: “Are you actually making change? Or is it just lip service?”

Bennett said she and others took note of a large historical painting the university unveiled in November inside Gorgas Library, an imposing neoclassical building on the main quad. The canvas depicts an idyllic scene of what the school might have looked like in the early 1830s, about the time of its founding in the antebellum era, before Union troops torched the campus to the ground at the end of the Civil War. A happy white student is at the heart of the piece, waving goodbye to well-wishers, as an enslaved carriage driver sits off to the side. A plaque says the artwork depicts “Alabama’s First Great University.”

“I personally don’t really care for it,” Bennett said of the painting. The charged racial imagery of privilege and enslavement is “almost an insult,” she said.

U. of Kentucky shrouds a 1934 mural that depicts African American slaves

Race is a long topic at this university. About 12 percent of its 37,000 students are African American, and one of them is the student government president. Elliot Spillers, 21, a senior from Pelham, Ala., last year became the first African American elected to that post since the mid-1970s.

For 125 years after the university’s founding in 1831, black students were barred from attending. The first African American student at Alabama, Autherine Lucy, was admitted in 1956 and expelled three days later, “for her own safety” in response to threats from a mob, according to an official university history.

On June 11, 1963,  Gov. George C. Wallace made his famous “stand in the schoolhouse door” on this campus to protest the enrollment of African American students Vivian Malone and James Hood. A plaque dated July 2004 marks the spot of this scene at Foster Auditorium, noting that the segregationist governor stepped aside to let the two students sign up for class after President John F. Kennedy mobilized the National Guard to enforce a court order.

Outside the auditorium, more of this history from the civil rights movement is marked by a clock tower adorned with commemorative plaques in what is called Malone-Hood Plaza. That space is now a gathering point for civil rights activism in the 21st century. The We are Done group convened a rally there in November as it announced its demands.