What’s in a Namesake: Admittance to and Omission from Public Memory

by Cole Richard

Cole Richard is a junior from Orlando, Florida double majoring in English and Italian Studies and minoring in Linguistics. This is his first summer working on the Race & Racism project. He is also a resident assistant, DJ at the campus radio station, and student worker at the music library.

Sometimes I reflect on how little I knew about the University of Richmond the day I decided it would be my first choice school. Towards the end of the summer before my senior year of high school I went on a college visit road trip up the East Coast with my dad. The schools selected were a combination of ones that I was already interested in (Bard, Pratt) and ones my dad thought would be a good match for me (Duke, Washington & Lee). The night before we left from our home in Florida, my dad added one more the itinerary: Richmond. Flash forward two days, and my dad and I were being taken on an admissions tour of this school I had never heard of, yet instantly wanted to attend. Our tour inundated us with those facts familiar to any prospective student: that Ryland Hall is the oldest building on campus, named after Richmond College’s first president; that E. Claiborne Robins’ 1969 donation to the University saved the school from bankruptcy (hence the statue and various buildings bearing his name). I took this all as it was presented to me and continued on, paying greater attention to the way the sun broke through the tree canopy between the business and law schools, and the circuitous motion of Westhampton Lake’s ducks and geese. For that year between my first visit to campus and freshman orientation, these were the images that defined the University of Richmond in my mind.

I was reacquainted with this earlier self in my exploration of the Race & Racism Project’s website. In the podcast Freeman Digitally Remastered, Natalia Chaney, Maddy Dunbar, and Canyon Teague explore how the legacies of campus buildings’ namesakes are often lost to students, especially first years. In the text accompanying the podcast, the authors note that Douglas Southall Freeman, the namesake of Freeman Hall, “served as rector from 1934-1950 and a member of the Board of Trustees for 25 years.” Freeman was an accomplished biographer and received a Pulitzer Prize in 1934 for his biography of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. However, Freeman espoused Confederate sentiments in his academic work and contributed to the development of Lost Cause ideology: attempts to rewrite the Confederacy as a just defense of “states’ rights” while minimizing the significance of slavery in the Civil War. Given this, the podcast producers interviewed UR students to document contemporary views on the University’s values and its buildings’ namesakes. When asked whether or not the University’s values conflict with the presence of a residence hall named for Freeman, one student responded: “It’s hard to say [because] I don’t know too much about Freeman or his beliefs […] it’s hard to judge on face value.” The podcast’s authors broaden their scope beyond Freeman as well. They discuss, for instance, that the source of Robins’ wealth that allowed him to donate such a large sum to the University was his company’s sales of a dangerously designed IUD, the Dalkon Shield, that resulted in the injury or death of thousands of women. [Editor’s clarification: The Dalkon Shield, released in 1971, was not the source of the 1969 gift. The Robins family, however, has continued to make donations to the university since 1969.]

While, in my experience, a large portion of UR students are aware of these such morally odious legacies, many students are not. After all, these are facts spread largely by word of mouth from students to students (and sometimes faculty to students), but not formally through institutional landmarks, signage, or curriculum. As such, one can hardly fault those who aren’t privy to such information, such as the aforementioned interviewee (or indeed the majority of first year students), as learning these histories can feel more a product of chance than certainty; a disparity the Race & Racism Project helps to combat.

In particular, I believe the format of a podcast allows for a greater degree of authenticity in recording not only what people say but how they say it. In my above quotation of the student who spoke on the debate over the name of Freeman Hall, something was lost. In transcribing his words I effectively erased the timbre, the perceived sound quality, of his voice. Having listened to the recording and noticed the speaker’s vocal qualities — his frequent use of high rising terminals (upward inflection) when speculating; the subtle vocal fry present in his saying “whether South or North it doesn’t matter” — I have a better understanding of the difficulty with which he spoke than if I had only read a transcript (or, indeed, this blog post). The audio nature of a podcast preserves these qualities, and I believe such authenticity has the added benefit of further encouraging people to participate and be recorded. People want their voices to be heard more than their words to be (mis)read.