Commemorative Justice is the Key to Honoring the Past, and Moving Forward

by Sabrina Garcia

Sabrina Garcia is a junior from, Waldwick, New Jersey double majoring in Leadership Studies and English and minoring in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGSS). This is her first year working on the Race & Racism Project, on Team Archive. Sabrina is in the WILL* Program, works as a writing consultant, and is training to be a PSMA. She hopes to dedicate her career to social justice and believes in the mission of Race & Racism wholeheartedly.

Learning about archival methodologies may sound lackluster, however what one can do with archival methodologies is imperative to recovering the histories of marginalized people. Being taught the process of metadata entry was important to understanding the techniques of archiving, however when combined with the impactful concepts and principles that were presented to me through lectures by Dr. Andrea Simpson, Sojourna Cunningham, and Free Egunfemi, the techniques became all the more powerful. These women presented methods and modes of approaching research that works against the natural modes of archiving, and each of them are using archiving to break down hierarchies of power in the academic institution and beyond.

Dr. Simpson spoke about the importance of understanding history and why the Race & Racism Project is so important to remaking the future of this institution through bringing to light the stories of underrepresented students. She explained the need to look at who the University of Richmond is consistently protecting and how they continue to uphold certain power structures on campus that can be harmful to POC students. Ms. Cunningham spoke about the ways in which archives have never been and cannot be neutral, particularly highlighting the fact that white men in power have typically written history. Therefore, there is no neutrality in the work of archiving, as this directly harms minority people, through inaction, and ignoring their stories. Ms. Cunninghanm also highlighted the ways that access to knowledge is far from free. Research done by academics, and published in journals, are often only accessible through expensive subscription, causing certain research to only be accessible by people who have such wealth. There is a need to make information public so marginalized people and grassroots organizations have access to such information to advance their causes.

Most impactful to my research was the discussion had with Free Egunfemi, a commemorative justice activist and creator of UntoldRVA. The mission of UntoldRVA is to use tactical urbanism to honor the untold stories of enslaved black people in Richmond. What tactical urbanism means for Free is printing enslaved people’s stories onto massive stickers, and gluing those stickers onto public spaces. In doing so, Free disrupts the narrative presented by the heritage tourism sector that ignores the stories of enslaved peoples. Free stresses the importance of reflecting upon oneself to unpack one’s own position within racist systems that we are all born into. This is especially important to the Race & Racism Project, as the goal is to help communities and bring to light their stories, not take their history from them without giving something in return. Commemorative justice is a necessary practice to learn when attempting to unpack the deep racial history of the University of Richmond.

In attempting to begin to brainstorm my own research project, I really wanted to focus on work that directly challenges the institution. My own experience coming into this University was transformative and impacted how I saw myself as a Latinx woman of color. By not seeing many students of color on campus, I felt very aware of the ways in which I was different, and the discomfort this caused me to feel in classrooms and on campus. From these experiences, came a hope to research how the construction of this campus and the very space is exclusionary to students of color and minority students. There are many areas that I can go with this research, from helping archive the enslaved burial ground on campus to looking at the specifics of buildings on campus and how those spaces have excluded certain students. Building environments exclude students of color on this campus due to the variety of buildings named after men who believed in slavery, and when one walks into a classroom there is an overwhelmingly  disproportionate amount of white students compared to students of color. As I delve deeper into my research, I want to make sure that I too am adding to Free’s concept of commemorative justice, Dr. Simpson’s ideas of pushing against the University to create a more welcoming space, and Ms. Cunningham’s insistence on the importance of an archive that is accessible to everyone. It is in this way of uncovering untold stories of the University’s past, and allowing all to hear and be impacted by those stories, that allows us to make the space more welcoming to future students of color.