Uncovering Untold Narratives of the University of Richmond

by Rena Xiao

Rena Xiao is a rising junior from New York City who has spent the majority of her life living abroad in Beijing, China. She is a Double Major in Geography and Global Studies with a Concentration in World Politics and Diplomacy, and a minor in WGSS.

The Race & Racism Project Oral History team has been busy conducting research for our upcoming interviews. The team will be interviewing Black alumni of the University of Richmond who attended this school in the 1970s and 80s. This past week has been dedicated to prep for the interview by drafting questions and learning as much as possible about our subjects. We have poured over online articles, yearbooks and archive materials to learn more about each individual and what campus was like back when they were students. I have spent the past few days looking into the life of Rayford L. Harris Jr, a student athlete and mathematics major who graduated with the Class of 1987.

I began the research process through a preliminary online search where I was able to find out basic information about Harris’ life through his LinkedIn and social media accounts. This online search answered questions I had about Rayford’s life after he graduated from the university. Harris went on to have a successful career in public service, becoming the Director of Budgeting and Strategic Planning for the City of Richmond under the administration of Douglas L. Wilder,  America’s first Black governor.  Harris was also neighbors with Oliver Hill, a prominent Richmond human rights lawyer who worked the Brown v. Board case. This information, however small, helps us paint a better picture of our subject and come up with more substantive questions. Harris’ background and connections to help provide context to our research and may have possibly influenced his time at University of Richmond.

I, along with other members of the Team Oral History, paid a visit to the archives to have a look through the yearbooks. The materials gathered from the pages of those archives give us a comprehension of major events and the campus atmosphere of when the alumni were in school. We were able to find class portraits of the subjects and the student clubs they were part of. For example, one of our practice interview subjects Iria Jones ‘87 was a member of the Minority Students Union, demonstrating that there were a small group of people advocating for students of color on campus in the 1980s. Not much is kept in the school records about the Minority Student Union and the club does not exist today. An interview with Jones would provide a valuable source to document a period of University of Richmond history that has not been well preserved.

Thus far, throughout the A&S summer research fellowship process, I have learned to read the archive against the grain and look for the narratives that are not presented in the source. What is included in the yearbook and what is left out presents an incomplete narrative. The editor of the yearbook goes through an extensive process of selection as to who is included in the yearbook and which photos from the school year are incorporated. Whether they are aware or not, every editor’s view is biased and effects what is placed into yearbooks and archives. A majority white yearbook staff likely did not have an extensive understanding of the black or minority student experience at the University, thus unable to document it in the yearbook. “Activist archiving” is to use the power every archivist has to determine what records will be preserved for future generations to look for forgotten histories in existing archives. Yearbooks present a history of the school where only the dominant narratives are highlighted. Flipping through the pages of yearbooks from 1983-88, we can see how minority students voices have been left out of the conversation. In the 1980s, the biggest debate on campus was the question of allowing sororities at the school. The issue was controversial, with many arguing for and against allowing Greek life for women. Multiple pages had been dedicated to the topic in the yearbooks from the decade. However, reading against the grain would lead us to questions such as: why are only white women pictured in these forums? Were students of color offered the same opportunity to rush sororities? To what extent were the voices of black women taken into consideration during the deliberation process? Yearbooks can be shared with interview subjects for them to shed light on student experiences in history that were previously left off record.