In Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy during the Civil War, symbols commemorating the Confederacy and the people who supported it have long been commonplace. Similarly, at VCU, the city’s urban university, commemorations that honor former Confederates have been a part of the campus landscape — from university buildings named after members of the Confederate army to statues in city-owned Monroe Park honoring those who served on that side in the war. However, those commemorations could soon become a thing of the past.
Following the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., charged a work group, the President’s Committee on Confederate Commemoration, with conducting an extensive audit of symbols of the Confederacy, racism, slavery, white supremacy and other items of an exclusionary nature that existed on VCU’s campuses. The step was prompted in part by students, faculty, staff and alumni raising concerns about the presence of these symbols at VCU. The work group subsequently engaged the university community, an eager participant in the process, in 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. The committee voted on 18 recommended actions, solicited public feedback and received more than 3,000 comments on its recommendations.
The recommended actions include 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. Recommendations also included petitioning 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.) The thorough study clearly demonstrated that the commemorations and memorials on the VCU campuses do not reflect the values of the university — inclusion, equity and diversity.
The committee’s recommendations are not solely about removing names. They also are about new commemorations.
The committee’s recommendations are not solely about removing names. They also are about new commemorations. These include naming a School of the Arts building after Murry DePillars, Ph.D., who served as dean of the school from 1976 to 1995, and 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.
As monuments to the Confederacy and its key figures are removed from public spaces across the country — including on Richmond’s Monument Avenue — one recurring charge is that “history is being erased” with their removal. The committee worked to educate the wider VCU community about the differences between history (what happened) and collective memory (how people remember the past to foster their shared identities) and how both function in this process.
Decommissioning symbolic displays of oppression is just one piece of a larger puzzle to create an inclusive community. Ultimately, VCU’s work to contend with its past and commit to its future is only just beginning.
The 18 recommendations and public comments were shared with President Rao on July 24, 2020, and put forward to the VCU Board of Visitors at September’s board meeting. For more about the work of the Committee on Commemorations and Memorials and its recommended actions, visit https://inclusive.vcu.edu/public-comment/.