Learning about My PWI

[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 Eden Wolfer

Eden Wolfer is a rising junior from Wilmington, Delaware. She is majoring in sociology and minoring in education. This is her first summer working for the Race & Racism Project and she is excited to learn from this experience.

PWI is short for “Predominantly White Institution” and is used to describe both modern day higher education institutions in which white students make up 50% or more of the student population, and to reference institutions which have been historically white, in contrast to HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). (More on PWIs can be found in the Encyclopedia of African-American Education, 1996).  

When I was starting to look at colleges, it was easy to look at the provided statistics about diversity and think that was enough. If there was a significant percentage of non-white students on campus that was all I could ask for from my school. My experience at college would not be affected by how people of color experienced campus, and obviously this is a very privileged position to be able to work from. Thinking about it now, two years into a sociology degree later, I am not sure why a 17 year old would think to look for information about the experience of students of color when we have been socialized into thinking a number of diverse students is enough to show a school is not racist.

If someone were to try and begin to look for the concealed racial history of the University of Richmond without knowing to look at the Race & Racism Project website, there are no easily found resources. The school website brushes over the history with integration and completely ignores the administration’s deep resistance. Overall, while attending this school little about its racially charged past has ever been brought to my attention outside of conversations with people involved in the Race & Racism Project at UR.

Modlin is a name heard on campus all the time, if only to complain about the hill leading up to the Westhampton Green. However, Modlin the man was not even someone on my radar until this past week; I never even knew he was a president of the university. As such, knowing he would be critical to learn about in the process of learning about race and racism at this school I chose to focus mostly on him to explore on memory.richmond.edu.

The Modlin letters posted online have been such an interesting resource, never in the course of my education have I seen primary sources that support institutionalized racism. In one instance, Dr. George M. Modlin sent a letter encouraging those who supported democracy to “exert their full influence in maintaining our political and economic traditions” a reference to using poll taxes to keep black citizens of Virginia from voting. In another letter he writes about how the school was the last in the state to integrate and only because they intended to keep the ROTC and other federal programs; in the letter he asks the recipient to be “sympathetic” in understanding why the school had to integrate. This is a man whose name is memorialized on our arts center, whose name is brought up daily by every student walking to North Court, whose legacy at this school was keeping it segregated for as long as possible.

I still want to learn more about the history of this school, more than is available on the official page with the quotes from Barry Greene, the first residential black student, about how he feels welcomed on the last college campus to integrate. However, the struggle to walk up Mount Modlin feels like so much more knowing about the man behind the name.

2 thoughts on “Learning about My PWI

  • July 1, 2018 at 5:07 pm
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    Dear Ms. Wolfer, I should very much like to meet you and tell you a good deal more about Dr. Modlin than you have obviously heard or read, since you have an entirely false picture of the man , or at least it certainly appears so, from what you have written in your blog. The fact that we even have a viable university today is primarily because after Dr. Boatwright’s 51 years as a “visionary” president who saw the need to formalize the education of women with the founding of Westhampton College for Women, and the need to create the present day campus location instead of the earlier Fan District location, we were very fortunate to have Dr. Modlin, who was the “preserver” of a small Baptist college that had barely the resources to survive (never mind thriving) during the depression & post WWII years. It was Dr. Modlin who recognized the need for major financial resources, and found them in E. Claiborne Robins and convinced him of Mr. Robin’s dream of having the university become one of the finest small private universities in the country —- Without a Dr. Modlin, (& Dr. Wheeler, the Treasurer) it is unlikely that the school would have survived — much less become the school that it is today. Apparently you have seen only a small part of Dr. Modlin’s contributions & legacy, and, in my opinion, formed a very erroneous perception of the man and his contributions to the University of Richmond. I was a student on this campus from 1945 – 1949, and have served in many volunteer capacities since then, including being a trustee and member of the Board of Associates. I’m a very active alumna, and very grateful to have been a student here who has worked with all the Deans of Westhampton, and Presidents of the University. I encourage you to look beyond whatever resources you have so far seen, before forming such thoroughly negative judgments based on limited evidence. I would look forward to meeting you and becoming better acquainted!

  • July 9, 2018 at 6:36 pm
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    Thank you for writing in and sharing your response to Eden’s blog post. We appreciate your willingness to engage the Project as new research develops and is shared. What is important to us, as mentors, is that students consider the complexity of individuals and the institutions within which they work. Rather than attempt to cast historical actors as icons to be revered or villains, we strive to consider individuals as acting at particular historical moments, under constraints and pressures. This ensures that our understanding of history does not pre-suppose an inevitable conclusion but locates people as agents in history. What we see as a key strength of Eden’s post is her willingness to both see Modlin’s contributions as well as the elements of Modlin’s tenure as president that would complicate an uncritical celebration of these contributions, namely his unwillingness to desegregate the university sooner. I am sure there are details of Modlin’s time at UR we have not yet uncovered. That said, whatever still may be hidden from us, these details should not erase the fact that UR lagged behind many universities in the U.S. in desegregating its residential campus. We welcome the opportunity to learn more and hope, as an alum, you will be willing to continue the discussion with the project as it expands.

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