On monuments, movements, and seemingly immovable monsters
This week has been transformational at Virginia Tech. As part of our annual Diversity Summit, we had over 800 colleagues register for the event.
And we hosted a Making the Chair Fit conversation with two deans, Sally Morton and Laura Belmonte.
You can watch our conversation here:
Laura was also part of a conversation about White women as allies.
She is just a strong voice and strong leader and an amazing historian and scholar. Sally is a statistician and has blazed trails as a woman statistician. Her remarks were so honest and authentic in acknowledging progress but also real shortcomings, particularly related to African-American faculty. I appreciate both of them tremendously.
After the conversation, I shared some remarks about the relationship between conversation and action.
We often have mixed feelings about “conversations.” Sometimes they make us impatient. We need less talk and more action. I know we often want immediate action and I agree that we need to be engaging in transformational steps to create a more equitable society. We do need to have movement along a continuum that is visible, tangible, and sustainable.
Yet, I firmly believe change must begin with a conversation. By conversations, leadership is held accountable. Through conversations, we can discover positionalities and perspectives. By conversations, we can determine potential allies and potential adversaries. Change cannot occur without conversations. And, though sometimes we get stuck after conversations, because conversations can bubble up a range of emotions, frustrations, irritations, and aggravations, conversations are not only the starting point, they are the ongoing point.
There have been many conversations that started not only at Virginia Tech, but around the country in the new civil rights movement. These conversations were about race, about Blackness, about injustice, and police power, about inequality. And while these conversations this summer appropriately were about the African-American experience, they challenged all of us to think about our own work around equity, social justice, inclusion, human rights, and creating a more just and equitable society.
The historic events of a pandemic and a new civil rights movement have revealed stark differences within American culture, and raised issues of states’ rights; individual freedom; government regulations; federal power; police power. It has created a fertile ground for not only conversation, but also for transformation.
This larger question of what each of us must we do, is particularly important and salient at Virginia Tech because our motto is a call to action, daily. Ut Prosim, that I may serve. And we must ask ourselves how can we be of service to others in our work at this institution? How do we know what another needs or wants? By its very nature, Ut Prosim is a call to do for another. At its core, it touches the very essence of humanity and what it means to be human, to support, assist, and be in community with others.
We started that work this summer. As part of Juneteenth, the institution began to talk to each other, in faculty meetings, in staff meetings, to create a space for hearing the uncomfortable truths of experiences of oppression, the unfolding of privilege. My colleague, Michele and I had a conversation;
President Sands and I had a conversation, as well.
I started writing more intentional blog posts on my website about diversity, about race, about power and privilege. I am writing about what I am seeing, hearing, and feeling as a Black woman at Virginia Tech and as a Black Woman in America. My posts were called:
You say you want to be an ally, but do you really? It was about White women who say they want to be allies, yet they are not courageous enough to do the work of allyship.
I wrote a post called on the Manifestation of White Supremacy after a meeting that I felt stabbed me in my heart as a direct manifestation of White power and positionality and privilege.
I wrote about The Nearly Impossible Job of a Chief Diversity Officer as I realized this position often sits in an irreconcilable tension of pushing against the very structures of which the position is a part.
I wrote Excuse me, excuse me, I have something to say when I realized the zoom environment could potential preclude and silence women.
In this work, in this season, in this time, those of us in positions of leadership have to be extraordinarily courageous in pushing against a tide that has been systemically designed to be immovable. We have to speak; We have to call out, we have to challenge. And that is what I ask each of you to consider this year. I am asking each of you to assess your personal readiness and willingness to engage in pushing. To push against in small ways and big ways, the system that has been designed to be immovable.
I have been reflecting on the possibility of moving a seemingly immovable tide. On the possibility of making everyone feel included? On the possibility of creating an Inclusive Virginia Tech; on the possibility of creating an equitable Virginia Tech. On the potential of challenging stereotypes and conscious and unconscious bias about women, about people of color, about the LGBTQ community, about the disability community, about religious communities, about veterans? On the opportunity to enact different policies and procedures that help create accountability for the change we want, that create sustainable transformation.”
Since the end of the summit, I have continued to think about the “seemingly immovable tide” and have come to see it as “seemingly immovable monsters.” Oppression, racism, White Supremacy, injustice, hate, and inequality are all monsters.
Our readiness and willingness to engage in pushing against seemingly immovable monsters in small ways and big ways begins with conversations and sometimes those conversations, those pushes, occur over years. And then, what seems to be a “suddenly,” happens. And “suddenly” on Thursday, a seemingly immovable monster is moved/removed. Two residence halls names were changed from the names of White men who exemplified and manifested racism to African-American names. One is named after Janie and Williams Hoge, the first African-American family that housed 8 Black men, over several years, when they could not stay on campus.
The work of the Hoge family is shared by one of the students they housed, Lindsay Cherry in his own book and life story and in this article:
Janie was up before daybreak, making every meal, washing and ironing clothes, and she and her husband were “parents” to those young Black men.
The other residence hall is named after James Whitehurst, the first Black student to stay on campus.
From the Virginia Tech magazine, we learn more: https://www.vtmag.vt.edu/fall97/feature1.html
In 1959, Tech granted admission to Robert Wells (mechanical engineering ’63), along with James Whitehurst (electrical engineering ’63), who became a pioneer among pioneers.
Prohibited from joining the football team, much less living or eating on campus, Whitehurst, with the help of Montgomery County’s commonwealth’s attorney, filed an injunction under the 1954 Civil Rights Act. Ultimately, Whitehurst, though permitted to practice with the team, wasn’t allowed to use the athletic facilities in the old War Memorial Gym and so had to walk through town in his football equipment. He quit the team and filed a grievance with the Civil Rights Office in Washington, D.C.
As a result of this second injunction, Whitehurst was assigned an entire bay of Lane Hall—which he shared with a resident advisor—and was allowed to eat with the corps of cadets on campus. Moreover, he attended the Ring Dance his junior year, a move that President Walter Newman had publicly discouraged but acquiesced to because of another injunction filed on Whitehurst’s behalf. Accompanied by the dean of students and his wife and required to sit in the balcony of the gym, Whitehurst remembers being greeted by cheers and applause from his classmates when he and his date took the floor to dance.
After his sophomore year, Whitehurst demanded a room on campus — and was given an entire bay of Lane Hall. In Cadet Whitehurst’s junior year, he rebuffed President Newman’s request that he not attend the ring dance, and he recalls that, when he stepped onto the dance floor with his date, his classmates cheered him. In his senior year he lived in the same residence hall as white men did and, unlike the first pioneers, could eat on campus.
In 1970, Whitehurst forged yet another first as the first black member of the Tech Board of Visitors, setting a precedent for the later appointment of black alumni: Yates from 1983-1985; Rose M. Robinson (horticulture ’81) from 1988 to 1996; the graduate student representative for the 1997-98 term, Michael Herndon (Ph.D. educational leadership and policy ’00), Tech’s current director of interdisciplinary studies; Philip Thompson (M.S. systems engineering ’77) in 2000; and Bruce Smith (general arts and sciences ’85) in 2002.
What happened? Seemingly immovable monsters moved.
This is the work of movements. Social justice movements. They move the seemingly immovable; they move injustice towards justice. My first book, Critical Race, Feminism, and Education: A Social Justice Model (2010) was an interrogation of how social justice movements happen. I wrote about the collective action frame that requires a definition of a social justice problem in a manner that creates an moral imperative; an attribution of blame and responsibility to individuals, groups, structures, or systems; and the articulation of action that addresses responsible parties, creates accountability and outcomes. This issue of naming is a perfect case study.
For years, this presence of names has been called out as a social justice problem.
A Roanoke Times article by Kevin Miller (https://roanoke.com/news/tech-dormitory-name-prompts-student-protest/article_b2c19ba0-39b3-5380-ac89-dedc4d24e66d.html) reminds us of the journey from November 19, 2004:
Tech dormitory name prompts student protest
A small but growing group of students are once again pressuring the university to strip Lee’s name from a dormitory – a demand that Tech administrators rejected when the issue first flared in the fall of 1997. And for the second time in seven years, the racial views of a man who died 40 years ago have become part of a debate about the climate towards minorities on campus today.
Students in history professor Peter Wallenstein’s class discovered the offensive material in the fall of 1997 during a research project. Details of the discovery soon made it into the campus newspaper, prompting some members of the black community on campus to demand that administrators change Lee Hall’s name.
Torgersen ultimately decided not to change Lee Hall’s name, arguing that universities cannot “reconcile regrettable aspects of our histories by trying to change the record left to us by the past.” Torgersen created a new position – vice president for multicultural affairs – to address diversity concerns and figure out ways to recognize the university’s first black students.
Charles Steger, Torgersen’s successor as president three years later, has made diversity a top priority of his administration. Last year, Tech’s governing board named a dormitory Peddrew-Yates Hall near Lee Hall after Irving Peddrew, the first black student to enroll at Tech, and Charlie Yates, who was the university’s first black graduate.
But Tech has continued to struggle with recruitment of black faculty and students. In March 2003, the Board of Visitors angered many black students when it abolished affirmative action on campus only to reinstate it under pressure one month later. Enrollment of black freshmen has fallen three years in a row.
Then in October, diversity issues became a flashpoint on campus again when someone scrawled threatening, racially derrogatory language on the door of the campus NAACP chapter. During the ensuing meetings of black student organizations, details resurfaced about the namesake of Lee Hall and Lee’s controversial Bugle entries.
A group known as the DROP Alliance held a protest outside Lee Hall last week. Students have demanded meetings with administrators to discuss the issue. And Steger has now asked the university’s Commission on Equal Opportunity and Diversity to once again study the issue and make recommendations.
Melissa Mould, a junior who is among the leaders of the push to rename Lee Hall, said students are not willing to compromise this time and will continue to fight to remove Lee’s name from the dorm. Mould said she recognizes that Lee made significant contributions to campus. But she feels a plaque or some other less-grandiose recognition is more appropriate given the yearbook.
“I’m not saying we should eradicate Claudius Lee from Virginia Tech history,” Mould said. “I just think our dormitories should not be named after a man who created organizations rooted in hate.”
Akilah Chopfield, a Tech junior, said changing would be a sign to the black community that Tech is willing to face and address its past.
“To change the name is really an external sign of an internal change,” Chopfield said. She added that changing the name would send a message to whoever vandalized the NAACP door “that this school will not tolerate intolerance, even in the name of a building.”
The push from 2002-2004 was just that. A small push against a seemingly immovable monster. DROP, Direct Resistance of Privilege, a group formed in the spring of 2002 to challenge institutionalized racism at VT, began a push against a monster. Their push did not change the building name, but it did lead to change. A March 2004 article shares this journey:
The push created the Principles of Community in 2005. They arose from the activism of the DROP students. A March 14, 2005 article highlights in part this outcome, though not specific mentioning their work:
The Virginia Tech Principles of Community draws upon several documents and university-wide initiatives developed over recent years, including the university’s statement of mission and core values; the university’s strategic plan and complementary “Diversity Strategic Plan” published in 2001; the work of the Commission on Equal Opportunity and Diversity created in 2003; the “Standards for Inclusive Policies, Programs and Practices” adopted by the CEOD in 2004; and the “Working Document on Diversity” developed at the request of the board of visitors in 2004. The statement was also reviewed and discussed at the university’s recent Diversity Summit held in January.
These Principles of Community remain core to this today to Virginia Tech. They are a foundational set of guidelines for our expectations of inclusion, equity, and diversity.
And then, 15 years later, in June 17, 2020, more student activism:
A petition to change the name led by a courageous student, Jimmy Kaindu:
As he shared:
“To me, being an activist is someone who promotes positive change in the community. Someone who gives a voice to those who do not think they have one. Someone who willingly serves the community. To me, an activist is someone who does more than advocates for change; they take the next step and take action to promote change.” – Jimmy Kaindu, senior, mechanical engineering major
And so, on August 13, 2020, a change happened, a monster was removed. The Board of Visitors resolutions referencing the removal of the mosters refers to the same Principles of Community created so long ago 15 years ago: https://vtnews.vt.edu/articles/2020/08/bov-buildings-resolutions.html
For Lee Hall:
WHEREAS, the appropriateness of having a building bearing Lee’s name has continued
to be challenged from that day to the present; and
WHEREAS, according to the university’s Principles of Community and commitment to
inclusion and diversity, Virginia Tech rejects all forms of prejudice and discrimination;
strives to maintain a climate of civility, sensitivity, and mutual respect conducive to
positive learning, working, and living; and acknowledges the inherent dignity and value of
every individual; and….
For Barringer Hall:
WHEREAS, the appropriateness of having a building bearing Barringer’s name is counter
to the university’s commitment to inclusion and diversity and the Principles of Community,
which reject all forms of prejudice and discrimination; strive to maintain a climate of civility,
sensitivity, and mutual respect conducive to positive learning, working, and living; and
acknowledge the inherent dignity and value of every individual;
How did this seemingly immovabale monster move? What was it the result of? Pushes and pushes and pushes.
My work at Virginia Tech has been complex and nuanced. It has involved working on mastering the skill of pushing, of pushing myself; of pushing my team; of pushing the institution. It has compelled me to immeasurable depths of courage and conviction, but also moments of despair and desperation; and moments of anger and anguish.
I am often reminded of the words of Howard Thurman on his brilliant essay on courage and cowardice in Meditations of the Heart. He reminds us that: “Courage is not a blustering manifestation of strength and power. Sometimes courage is only revealed in the midst of great weakness and greater fear. It is often the ultimate rallying of all the resources of personality to face a crucial and devastating demand.”
This journey to change the name required a summoning of every “resource of personality to face a crucial and devastating demand” of a seemingly immovable monster.
My post – on the manifestation of White Supremacy – arose from meetings at Virginia Tech. How could it not? Virginia Tech is where 100% of my commitment is focused. It pushes and pulls against my very soul in unspeakable ways, every day, 25/8, not even 24/7.
I was privileged to serve on two structures tasked with responsibility associated with the naming process: The Council on Virginia Tech’s History and the Commemorative Tributes Committee.
The Council – a large and diverse body – has done amazing work.
It is working to tell a more comprehensive and inclusive history of Virginia Tech. President Sands tasked this Council with the responsibility to make a recommendation related to building names.
Peter Wallenstein, Professor of History, is part of the Committee and a small Executive Council of the Committee that includes the chair, Bob Leonard, Professor of Theatre. Both Bob and Peter are White men. They are incredible and phenomenal people who have worked closely with me for three years on issues of race, Whiteness, and history. I appreciate them tremendously. Peter has been involved for years in this fight and has written extensively about Virginia Tech being the first land-grant university in the former Confederacy to admit black students. As a historian, Peter has played an invaluable role in this work for 23 years.
Peter, Bob, and I work together to shepherd the work of the Council and to respond to President Sands’ request to review the “seemingly immovable monster.” The deliberations and conversations (again absolutely essential purpose and importance of conversations) were thoughtful and reflective and personal. What bubbled up to the surface was an often ignored reality of trauma.
Scholars who do DNA research talk about the legacy of trauma in the DNA, in the blood, in the bones, in our soul, on our spirits. I feel that.
The impact of racism on the body, on our spirits and souls and lived experiences cannot be ignored. On Wednesday, August 12, the day before the summit, I was fortunate to hear a presentation called “Confederate Commemoration in Academic Settings: A presentation on memory and race” hosted by the Virginia Tech Department of History.
It was powerful to think about how the legacy of America continues to impact us. It was not only about monuments to the confederacy in academic settings, but also the stories that are created about the monuments and the people. Two presentations stood out for me:
Ashley Reichelmann, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at Virginia Tech, and T. J. Tallie, an assistant professor of African history at the University of San Diego.
One of Ashley’s slides had a quote that said: “It is easy to correct facts; it is much harder to correct a worldview that consistently ignores and distorts the role of African Americans and race in our history” Leslie Harris (Northwestern University).
This quote reminds us of the importance of recognizing that worldviews are seemingly immovable monsters.
And one of TJ Tallie’s slides had this image that just horrified me.
Washington and Lee University’s chapel that hosts main events has this statute in repose and it used to have Confederate Flags flanking him, but the flags were removed. And when I saw the image, and heard TJ’s discussion of his first time in the chapel, I felt something. Something in my spirit, something in my soul, something in my bones. On one of his slides, there was a quote from Sara Ahmed from Queer Phenomenology (111):
“Bodies are shaped by histories of colonialism, which makes the world ‘white’ as a world that is inherited or already given. This is the familiar world, the world of whiteness, as a world we know implicitly. Colonialism makes the world ‘white,’ which is of course a world ‘ready’ for certain kinds of bodies, as a world that puts certain objects within their reach. Bodies remember such histories, even when we forget them. Such histories, we might say, surface on the body, or even shape how bodies surface.”
It made me reflect on the relationship between bodies and America; between my body and American history; between my body and the history of enslaved people; between student, faculty, and staff’s bodies and their institutions; between our students, faculty, and staff, and the history of residence halls at Virginia Tech.
America has a history. I wrote about America’s history in a post called, “Dear America.”
What history is imprinted in my DNA, a DNA from my mother’s people — the ancestors of enslaved people? a DNA from my father’s people — ancestors from Freetown, Sierra Leone, a place founded by formerly enslaved people? What trauma is embedded in my genetic makeup? What trauma has been transmitted to me from generations and is being and will be transmitted in future generations? Is this trauma a seemingly immovable monster? Or can we work to heal from this trauma?
What trauma did we subject students to in residence halls where they had to call the name and write the name of a man whose values were inconsistent with their humanity and dignity? What trauma did we subject the Black students to who could not live in the residence halls? What trauma did we subject all students to by having them daily walk in and out and play in a physical space associated with White supremacy and racism?
Can we repair trauma? Can we heal from trauma?
We cannot erase the past; we cannot erase history. We can work on telling a more comprehensive and authentic and inclusive history of all experiences, with complexity.
We can acknowledge wrongs and work to right them, even 23 years after they have surfaced.
We can push the seemingly immovable. The permanence of a name of a person, the name on a building. Enshrhined, engraved, a tatoo. A branding on a building. How much more permanent does it get?
And yet, only seemingly immovable. For these monsters were moved/removed.
What else is seemingly immovable? What else represents a perception of permanence, of the way a thing is? Of a way a thing must be? Of a way a thing can only be?
So much in America seems to often be seemingly immovable. Yet they are moving. The new social justice movement is moving the seemingly immovable monsters. Statutes are toppling all over the place; being removed; stored away, placed for learning in other spaces.
This work of moving the seemingly immovable is hard and difficult work. It occurs over generations; over graduating classes of students; after the deaths of those who labor shifted tides.
Janie and William Hoge died shortly after housing the last Black student before he could move into the residence hall. The toll of caring for those students was a sacrifice. They were in their 60s and 70s. Neither Janie or William could attend college, let alone finish high school. The resolution says:
WHEREAS, Janie and William Hoge, both born in the 1880s and the children of former
slaves, had limited education: Mr. Hoge was educated through the third grade and Mrs.
Hoge’s formal schooling ended with the seventh grade; and
WHEREAS, Janie and William Hoge resided at 306 East Clay Street, adjacent to the
Virginia Tech campus, and opened their home, providing room and board to the first
African-American students enrolled at Virginia Tech, who studied engineering and were
members of the Corps of Cadets, yet were denied housing on campus in the barracks;
WHEREAS, in the twilight of their lives in the 1950s and 1960s, Janie and William Hoge
provided great care to students Irving Peddrew; Lindsay Cherry; Floyd Wilson; Charlie
Yates; Matthew Winston, Sr.; Essex Finney, Jr.; Robert G. Wells; and James L.
Whitehurst, Jr., and played a key role in opening up this institution of higher education to
a much younger generation of black Virginians, offering love, compassion, and guidance
to those young trailblazers;
The Hoge family sacrificed their lives to house Black students. They housed Black students because the institution didn’t want White students to have to live with Black students. I want us to understand fully what it meant. Black students COULD NOT live with White students, just because of the color of their skin. And in the Hoges’ lifetime, Virginia Tech DID NOT recognize them. Janie died in 1960 and William in 1964.
This is how most lives are lived. We give, we do, we serve. Not for a reward from the world, but often into unrecognized silence. As Howard Thurman said, an act of courage “has neither trumpet to announce it nor crowds to applaud.”
I am often reminded of a woman at Virginia Tech with extraordinary convinction, voice; a persistent presence; a courageous scholar. Since her arrival at Virginia Tech, she has been pushing against a seemingly immovable monsters; challenging, questioning, pushing.
Brandy Faulkner is just one example of many voices at Virginia Tech. Voices whose work is words. Voices who force conversations. And whose conversations lead to change. And so, from conversations, we get actions on a day like August 13th and a monster moves.
A seemingly immovable monster moves.
A process led to the right outcome and the same body – the board of visitors of Virginia Tech – that in 2003 voted to abolish affirmative action, is the same body – different people – the Executive Committee in 2020– that voted to approve the name change.
The same position – the President – that in 1997, and 2003, and all the years after 2003 could not and would not recommend a name change, is the same position – different person in 2020 – that could make a recommendation.
And so, the signs are up. Before students move on to campus, they will be living in a residence hall that reflects the aspirations of the institution.
I am happy for Virginia Tech. And, I want to honor Lindsay Cherry’s request to start a scholarship fund in honor of Janie and William Hoge to support deserving students. More soon.
May we continue to move seemingly immovable monsters in our society and world.