By Mike Porter
Virginia Commonwealth University’s Board of Visitors last week approved three resolutions that de-commemorate several buildings on campus named for members of the Confederacy, name a School of the Arts building after a former dean and allow the Department of African American Studies to rename its academic building.
The historic vote follows an extensive review of Confederate symbols reflected in plaques, building names and statues on and near campus.
“Expert historical analyses reveal a more complete story of the meaning of all of these memorials and commemorations that we cannot ignore nor accept,” said Michael Rao, Ph.D. president of VCU and VCU Health System. “We’ve learned a lot from this process, and it is clear that the values represented by these namings and symbols run counter to the values to which we are committed — inclusion, equity and diversity. The symbols of the Confederacy have come to impede our mission to serve all and that’s why I have recommended we no longer honor those symbols.”
The board approved a resolution that includes the de-commemoration of McGuire Hall, Baruch Auditorium, the Ginter House, the Jefferson Davis Memorial Chapel, the Tompkins-McCaw Library and the Wood Memorial Building — all spaces with namesakes who were members of the Confederacy. The resolution also calls for continued work with the city of Richmond to remove the Fitzhugh Lee monument, the Joseph Bryan statue and the W.C. Wickham monument in Monroe Park and the Howitzer statue near Park and Harrison streets. Each of the honorees had ties to the Confederacy. (The Monroe Park monuments and the Howitzer statue were removed this summer.)
In August 2017, Rao charged a work group to conduct an extensive audit of symbols of the Confederacy, racism, slavery, white supremacy and other items of an exclusionary nature on VCU’s campuses following the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. Students, faculty, staff and alumni had raised concerns about the presence of these symbols at VCU. The President’s Committee on Confederate Commemoration engaged with the community through numerous interviews, presentations and small-group forums.
That work led to the formation of the Committee on Commemorations and Memorials to make recommendations to approve memorials, commemorations and de-commemorations to the president. On July 7, the committee voted on 18 recommendations and solicited public feedback. The committee received more than 3,000 comments on its recommendations. The recommendations and comments were shared with Rao on July 24.
Aashir Nasim, Ph.D., vice president of institutional equity, effectiveness and success at VCU and chair of the Committee on Commemorations and Memorials, said while it can be easy to dismiss statues, plaques and other commemorations as “just symbols,” it is important to recognize that “symbolism matters.”
“Removing Confederate symbolism from our campuses, which still yields a de facto segregation in terms of how that historical era gave rise to the education and health disparities we see today, may also serve as an opportunity for reconciliation and restoration,” Nasim said.
The board also approved a resolution that calls for the naming of a School of the Arts building after Murry DePillars, Ph.D., who served as dean of the School of the Arts from 1976 to 1995. DePillars is credited in large part for the school’s growth in student enrollment and its ranking as a top arts school in the nation.
The board also approved a resolution removing the name “Harrison” from the current Harrison House to clear the way for the Department of African American Studies to commemorate and name the building. VCU’s Department of African American Studies was launched in 1972 as the second department of its kind in Virginia.