We Like What You Do, But Don’t Care Who UR

[For the first blog post of the Summer 2018 A&S Research Fellowship, students were tasked with exploring the existing collection of the Race & Racism at UR Project at memory.richmond.edu and reflecting on the materials they encountered there.]

by Jacob Roberson

Jacob Roberson is a rising senior on the varsity football team from Richmond, VA double majoring in psychology and sociology. He is a co-vice president of UR Mentoring Network, he is a part of the Dean’s Student Advisory Board, and during the 2017-2018 academic year he was an appointed student representative of the Presidential Advisory Committee for Sexual Violence Prevention and Response. Additionally, he has been inducted into numerous honor societies including Omicron Delta Kappa, Mortar Board, Alpha Kappa Delta, and Psi Chi. He joined the Race & Racism Project in the summer of 2018 as a part of Team Oral History and hopes to remain an active contributor and collaborator into and through the 2018-2019 school year.

I have been able to call Richmond, Virginia home for all 21 years of my life and fortunately have had little to no trouble navigating about it; be it directionally, socially, athletically, racially, etc. Growing up as a multi-sport athlete, division one sports were something I always had on my mind for when I graduated high school and it was time for me to go to college. During my senior year, the University of Richmond, despite its high cost of attending, emerged as a viable option for me to choose to play division one football and be a student athlete. Though the campus is only a mere 15 minutes away from my home, I had only ever been to the campus for a few basketball games in the Robins Center when I was young, and to the intramural fields for a few recreation lacrosse games during high school. I never realized that there were only 3000 undergraduates, I did not know how the coordinate college system of Richmond College and Westhampton College functioned to make the “University of Richmond,” and I certainly did not know that the first black students were not admitted to the main campus until 1968.

It was this last piece, which I did not learn until midway through my sophomore year at UR, that has since sparked my interest in the racial history of not only the University of Richmond, but my hometown of Richmond, Virginia. After attending the Black Student Athlete Summit in Austin, Texas with a few fellow student athletes (SAs) from UR, we returned from the conference and started working on a presentation specifically about black SAs. We all realized we knew very little not only of the black history of the University of Richmond, but were especially ignorant on the history of black SAs at the University. One of my peers who I attended the conference with, Canyon Teague (’17), took Dr. Nicole Maurantonio’s Digital Memory and the Archive rhetoric and communications class, which was the birthplace of what is now known as the Race & Racism Project at the University of Richmond. In the aforementioned class, as well as during an annual summer cohort, students dive into the digital and physical archives (well… at least those items that have been fortunate enough to remain and be cared for) of UR to uncover previously lesser-known history as well as to verify other, more commonly known facts.

With the help of Canyon and our heightened curiosity, my peers and I made our way through the Race & Racism Project website (memory.richmond.edu) and the campus newspaper website, The Collegian, and realized just how little we knew, but more importantly, how much UR failed to recognize and highlight. We came to learn that Barry Greene was the first black student admitted to main campus of UR in 1968 (previously in 1964, several black students were permitted to take night classes at the satellite downtown campus, “University College”). It took a bit more researching, using subject tags like “integration, black students, student athletes” and all of these together, and even listening to podcasts by UR alum Victoria Charles (’16) to finally come across the first black student athletes (side note, you should definitely check out “Expanding the Ivory Tower” by Victoria on Soundcloud.)

These first spider athletes came through in the 1970s: Carlton Mack (basketball—the first black athlete to sign with UR), Weldon Edwards (football), and Norman Williams (track and field and the first full scholarship awardee) and Jerome Napier (track and field). It was pleasing to be able to find more articles and information of these athletes such as why they chose UR, how they were performing athletically, but also how they felt as students at the still very much white University of Richmond. Norman Williams, for example, was a breakout performer competing in five events during the indoor season including long jump in which he broke the school indoor record. However, the student athletes, as well as black students throughout the 1970s, made persistent mention of the lack of social life for black students on campus.

Discoveries such as Norman Williams, and Carlton Mack, and Barry Greene were not only encouraging to myself and my peers, but also fascinating and enthralled us to want to learn and share more. Upon recently looking through the archives, I found that there was a black athletic trainer/equipment manager, Esau Brooks, who apparently joined Spider Athletics as early as 1914. He remained there until his untimely death in 1957, but thankfully his service and presence did not go unnoticed by the campus, or at least, by the spider athletic community. Indeed his presence in multiple team photographs as well as his namesake even being mentioned was an anomaly compared to the majority of his fellow black staff at the University. My issue with the Collegian and yearbook inclusions of Esau are that we as the readers never get to hear his voice. There are no direct quotes or even paraphrases from Esau where he might have described his time. I do wonder whether he truly enjoyed his time at UR, or if he remained so long strictly to make ends meet and to support his family, for example.

This exclusion of the black staff voice can be found elsewhere too. One page in a 1915 yearbook included numerous photographs of black staff and perhaps their children as well with the sole words of the page reading “The Dark Side of College Life.” Aside from the fact that none of the individuals are named or have any description whatsoever, the rather insulting caption insinuates how the black staff of the time were viewed as a negative portion of the campus community. How intriguing it is that the athletes who did not join the community (“join” being a relative term of course) until the 1970s immediately received press and recognition. The reasons such an undergoing as the Race & Racism Project exist is to uncover the implicit and explicit prejudice that once existed on campus and that which still exist today. UR recognizes blackness when it brings notoriety to the school, or in the case of the first students, it got the federal government off of its back for finally integrating. Yet, when it comes to the maintenance and beautification of the campus, something UR certainly to this day prides itself on, those producing such labor go unknown.

As this project continues, I personally look forward to learning more about black staff and faculty especially. I feel each of those individuals played a vital role in paving the way for all of my peers and I today, even though we may never meet them. As hard as this University makes it for us who are interested to learn anything about them (to clarify, black faculty and staff), I will put extended effort into trying to bring their stories to light, even if all I can find is their name. #SayTheirNames.