Passive No Longer: Grappling With the University of Richmond’s History of Activism and Complacency

by Nathan Burns

Nathan Burns is a junior from Newtown, Pennsylvania double-majoring in French and Leadership Studies and minoring in English. This summer of 2019 marks Nathan’s first time working with the Race & Racism Project. On campus, Nathan is also a writing consultant and a member of the dining services student advisory committee.

When I was applying to college, my knowledge of the University of Richmond was limited to the selfishly narrow perspective of how the university would impact my immediate future. However, as an unintended consequence of this streamlined attention to what would be best for myself, I partially overlooked the university and the city of Richmond’s defining historical characteristics. For example, I was aware during my application process that Richmond was once the capital of the confederacy, and far more Southern than anywhere I had lived for an extended period of time. However, this fact, along with any nervousness I had surrounding it, often went unvoiced during my application process. Additionally, when drafting my application to the University of Richmond, I knew close to nothing about the university’s history, let alone its complete history. I knew only the aforementioned characteristics that I believed could potentially undermine my overall well-being during my four years on campus. Little did I realize that by pivoting away from how I viewed the university as only impacting my future, I would eventually become increasingly concerned with how the university’s past impacted—and still impacts—all of its students, faculty and staff.

Prior to hearing about the Race & Racism Project, I had heard occasional off-hand comments from friends and faculty that revealed shocking facts about our university’s problematic history. “Our mascot used to be a confederate spider!” “Former university president Robert Ryland was a slave owner!” “The fraternity KA was founded in the image of Robert E. Lee!” All of these comments made me feel sick to my stomach, not only because I had somehow deep down suspected our history to be riddled with these problematic facts, but more so because this knowledge was not officially acknowledged or publicized. I, perhaps like others, settled with believing there was little I could do in response to this problematic history that only emerged sporadically. It was in these moments that I experienced and participated in our university’s passivity and complacency firsthand, and I knew that I could be passive no longer.

Since taking Dr. Lee’s class entitled “Leadership and the Humanities,” which focused partially on how to publicly present the university’s complicated past, I have yearned to know more about not just overt instances of discrimination and bigotry on our campus, but also how marginalized communities have responded and organized to combat these abuses. I want to know more about student activism on campus in all of its various forms and iterations, in tandem with how they operated in the face of our university’s passivity and complacency, complacency that can still be felt on our campus today. In the spirit of Kimberlé Crenshaw, I would also like to consider an intersectional re-envisioning of campus history to analyze how racism on our campus is potentially compounded by homophobia and sexism. Additionally, a course on modern literary theory with Dr. Snaza has left me grappling with how our campus’ physical layout, location and architectural design might discourage or altogether inhibit student activism and organization.

Working my way through has been a useful tool for exploring these interests and has inspired many others. Overall, I find that the strength of the student exhibits on comes from the fact that they are comprehensive and easy to follow. It felt as though the exhibit guided me through the history chronologically, capturing and maintaining my attention. While I was drawn to a multitude of student exhibits displayed, I spent the most time on the exhibit “Racism in UR Fraternities (1947-1985)”. Seeing the explicit racism in the exhibit’s photographs was different from the shock of occasionally hearing about our university’s problematic history because I could not get over how public these instances were in the photographs and how complacent university students and staff were with these actions.

After spending some time with the student exhibits, I then moved on to the subject list tab to look up some key terms such as the LGBT community and homophobia. I chose to search for these terms because after scrolling through instances of racism in fraternities, I was interested in seeing if there were documented instances of homophobia in Greek life. My searches led me to several LGBT opinion pieces, two of which were from the same year (1991) and dealt with the controversy of incorporating an LGBT student organization on campus. One article references a group called the Lambda Coalition, which sparked my interest since I had never heard of it. After further research, I found an article from the university organization Common Ground, edited by Kevin Kendall and entitled “Lambda Coalition Continues on Path to Recognition,” which described the coalition in more detail. I found it fascinating that the group disaffiliated with CAPS to become the University’s first “LGB” support and advocacy group (the “T” had not yet been added to this title at the time), yet I had previously never heard of this organization. My journey toward learning about this group, as well as the other subjects I searched, led me back to questioning why organizations that actively question our campus’ passivity toward oppression are not more widely and publicly recognized today.

Lastly, I spent some time listening to an oral history interview with Barry Greene (R’72), the first black student to live in dorms on campus. Listening to this oral history was vastly different from learning through the exhibits or the individual digitized archival items because hearing Greene’s voice and his autobiographical perspective added a human element to the experience. The oral histories, to me, are one of the most direct ways that the Race & Racism Project can insert the voices of marginalized people into the campus’s historical narrative. This summer, I look forward to participating in the continued creation of this website and furthering my understanding of the university’s history.


One thought on “Passive No Longer: Grappling With the University of Richmond’s History of Activism and Complacency

  • June 20, 2019 at 9:27 pm

    Very well written and informative article. I look forward to reading more about the Race and Racism Project from this amazing writer and researcher.

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