By: Farrah Sanders
(Editor’s Note: Initial publication of this story in Summer 2020 issue was missing text due to internal movement of copy. This version has been revised to include that missing text).
The quickly growing mass uprising against racial inequality is uncovering long-ignored issues of systemic discrimination in the United States. By way of traffic-stopping protests, widespread social media use and overdue conversations about race, a new era of understanding is fastly approaching. This is causing us to take a serious look at how we as a nation are holding onto the past. Protestors and movement leaders nationwide quickly identified confederate monuments and memorials as the first artifacts to fall in what historians are calling the dismantling period.
These monuments have been subject to nationwide debate. It appears that every area of this country is being directly affected by this movement, including Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The University of Alabama is no stranger to this argument. Students, faculty and staff have historically led the discussion on the removal of monuments and the renaming of buildings dedicated to those with racist pasts. Hilary N. Green, associate professor of history and the Department of Gender and Race Studies, has centered her research around African American remembrances.
“African Americans have rejected these monuments and the racial geographies implemented from the very beginning,” Green said. “Due to threats of violence, they had resorted to developing safe spaces and advancing clear counter memories to this ‘Lost Cause’ landscape.”
The monuments that Green referred to are in various places on campus, gifted to the University as early as 1914. Given by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a large boulder was dedicated to Confederate soldiers that were also given an honorary diploma. Since moving to its second location, the center of the Quad, this memorial has been the center of the removal controversy. Standing 10 feet in length, 10 feet in width and not far from the Little Round House that housed enslaved drummer boys during the Civil War, this mammoth of a rock served as a constant reminder of a dark past and the University’s persistent silence. As tension around the country grew, so did the pressure for change. On June 8, the UA System Board of Trustees authorized the removal of three confederate plaques on campus. A small council of trustees was created to review the current names of buildings and report recommended name changes. This announcement came as a surprise to the UA community, especially those who have actively fought for change.
Teryn Shipman, university alumna and founder of For Black Girls Who Have A Lot to Say, feels bittersweet towards this moment but believes that these matters and more should be met with a lot of deliberation and reflection.
“I believe that UA, its administration and its Board of Trustees must honor the lives of those who were enslaved on UA’s campus, specifically when we are talking about renaming buildings,” Shipman said.
She recalls one of the reasons that she decided to attend the University was because of “its racist past and present.”
“I felt I was called to help create real institutional change from policies to practices and even traditions,” Shipman said. “While there, I’ve gotten to work alongside many freedom fighters…I believe that this is just the beginning of truly creating a country that represents the people. Shoutout to my ancestors and fellow freedom fighters.”
For decades, students, faculty and staff have found their own ways to contribute to awareness and progress. Shipman organized movements such as Bama Sits, Wake Up Bama and We are Done. A coalition of students and faculty, We are Done released a list of demands to be met by University administration in 2015. Their second demand called for the removal of the names of white supremacists, Klan members, Confederate generals and Eugenicists. The demands of the coalition can be found with a quick Google search. Shipman sees the demands as “still unmet or met but with the bare minimum.”
Liz Foshe, a graduate student and teaching assistant of Gender & Race Studies, felt like now was a good time to push for change at UA again.
“Essentially, there were two petitions circulating: one to change the racist building names at UA, and one to remove the confederate monuments from campus,” Foshe said. “Petitions like these have been going around for years since before I came to UA, but with everything going on with the Black Lives Matter protests all over the world, now seemed like the right time to really put pressure on UA to make change.”
Foshe met with a fellow student, Anna Beth Peters, and together they created an email campaign. This consisted of creating a pre-written email that could be accessed through a shared URL. Participants could enter their names and send the prepared statement to various members of the administration as well as the Board of Trustees.
To gain support, they reached out to various campus leaders and groups on campus, especially those who appeared to be in support of renaming buildings and removing memorials. Foshe recalls feeling disappointed that Student Government Association leadership responded in an email by saying they would like to support but there are “some aspects that the University cannot change.”
“This seemed a bit discouraging and contrary to the public sentiment expressed by [the] SGA, but we continued with our efforts nonetheless,” Foshe said.
Former safety for Alabama football, Rashad Johnson, posted the circulating graphics backing the motion for removal. This further added to the growing support. The University announced its intention to remove plaques and review names the following Monday. Judge John England shared with Liz Foshe in a meeting that he received over 500 emails due to the campaign. Many are regarding this response from the University as a step in the right direction. Green believes that this is the beginning, not the end.
“Systemic change requires times, sustained institutional support, and undefined and sustained financial commitments,” Green said. “If this process is not followed up by hiring and retaining diverse faculty, scholarships, curricular changes, this wave has the real potential of achieving the social justice results desired and will become another footnote to UA complex racial history from slavery to the present.”