A Shameful Past

By Vishwesh Mehta

I started working with the Race & Racism at the University of Richmond Project as a junior during my second semester. Initially, I decided to this research for solely selfish academic reasons. Having spent most of my life in India I knew little about the history of the country. Even though I had taken a course on American History it felt like I only got an overview of the complicated history. When I transferred to the University of Richmond I knew I was moving into a city which was the former capital of the Confederacy with a very dark history of involvement in the slave trade. However, I did not expect the University, being a place of intellect and acceptance, to have a track record of blatant racism. When I started my research last Spring I was taking a shot in the dark because this was one of my first ever research experience and I did not know what to expect from the project. However, as the weeks went by and I began looking at University publications and communications, I found a a holistic view of the race relations on campus. For most of my research I have used the online archives of The Collegian, a student run newspaper provides a ground level perspective of the conversations and incidents happening on campus when it came to race.

I started off by simply looking for blatantly racist articles in The Collegian–using keywords to search for materials which used language we now find offensive or outdated. Even though there was a ton of such content available, I found myself to be more interested in content which pushed me to read between the lines in order to break the silences in the archives when it came to issues of race. One such silence was exemplified the case of Russell Jones, a student at Virginia Union University, an HBCU in Richmond, during the 1940s who faced racism when he came to UR as a guest speaker. Even though the case was covered by the Collegian, there was no profile provided on Jones and this confirmed my assumption that people of color were intentionally left out of the conversation. African Americans mentioned in the Collegian were rarely named, and were not given the opportunity to speak for their own experiences.  There were no African American students at the University at the time, a segregated system which would not change until the late 1960s. There is an online exhibit which I have worked on with my research team telling the story of Russell Jones while putting it into a larger context of race relations of the time.

The Collegian ranges from 1914 to the present day, so it helps me look at themes occurring during different time periods. There is a clear divide between generations which is notable when one looks at issues from before and after 1940. Before the 1940’s both the faculty and the student body seemed to be insensitive towards problems of the racial minorities but after the 1940’s there seems to be a rise in positive student involvement when it came to issues of race. There seems to be a gradual change in attitude of the students when it came to important issues of segregation and racism. Students seem to be more in favor of integration as we move towards the 1970’s. Even though there is not a single incident that changed the course of race relations on campus, there were minor incidents of resistance from self-determined individuals and groups.

As I worked on the project last Spring, I realized that the project was uncovering some very interesting information. However, the audience for our work was not large. Not many students knew about the project and people outside of the University were barely involved. Therefore, for the summer I decided with my project mentor to change my role within the project. I wanted to work on increasing viewership for a project I felt very invested in. I took on the responsibility of working on the online presence of the project to market the project within and outside the University. According to me, sensitive information like this benefits from having a conversation about it rather than sweeping it under the rug.

Vishwesh Mehta is from Mumbai, India. He is a senior at the University of Richmond who is majoring in Rhetoric and Communication Studies. Vishwesh is involved in various clubs on campus. He is the community outreach director of the South Asian Student Association. Vishwesh was a part of the Spring 2017 independent study (RHCS 387) on the Race and Racism Project, and was the Social Media and PR intern for the project during Summer 2017.