What has the task force on slavery, segregation and racial injustice been up to?
A conversation with Alexander X. Byrd and Caleb McDaniel
Last month, a group of Black students published a list of demands for the administration to “address the systemic oppression and inequity that is embedded within Rice’s history by acknowledging and amplifying voices, experiences and communities that have historically been unheard.” One of the demands is to remove Founder’s Memorial, the statue of William Marsh Rice found in the academic quad, on the basis of Rice’s enslavement of 15 people and involvement in the cotton trade. This demand received particular attention with “Down With Willy,” a student-led social media campaign to demand the administration remove the statue.
In an email to the undergraduate student body sent on June 24, President David Leebron and Provost Reginald DesRoches acknowledged the demands, and wrote that they would be taking them under consideration. They added that the administration’s “process for formally recognizing and continuing to move forward from the racist aspects of our institution’s founding” began in June 2019 with the creation of the task force on slavery, segregation and racial injustice. The email reiterated what the task force is charged with — “discovering, documenting, acknowledging, and disseminating Rice’s past with respect to slavery, segregation, and racial injustice, as well as an understanding of how that history may continue to inform and shape the present state of the university” — but did not provide much information on how they’ve been doing this over the past year.
So features editor Ella Feldman sat down, virtually, with task force co-chairs and award-winning history professors Alexander X. Byrd and Caleb McDaniel to find out. The Rice community can engage with the task force further at “Movements, Monuments and Racism on Campus — A Conversation with Historians,” a talk taking place on July 6 at 12 p.m. over Zoom.
The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and relevance.
Rice Thresher: How exactly did the task force on slavery, segregation and racial injustice come about? Where did the idea for this project originate?
Caleb McDaniel: Well, it was commissioned by President Leebron last June. And we spent most of the fall assembling our team. Towards the end of the fall semester we had our first gathering as the whole group, so we really didn’t start working on the charge until January of this year. Our big launch event was in the spring, right before everything was disrupted by COVID. We had President Ruth Simmons of Prairie View A&M speak at Rice. She was president of Brown University when Brown University became one of the first universities to launch a project like this one, to study the history of slavery and racial injustice at Brown.
Alexander X. Byrd: But origins are complex, right? So one of my responses to that would be, that’s also part of the work of the task force, is to run through all of the different origin stories, and there are most likely several that we will document and record as part of our work.
CM: It’s something that I know historians have thought about for a long time. I think what many students at Rice may not be aware of is that there’s a larger national and international movement of scholars at various universities looking to understand the impacts of slavery on every aspect of their institution’s life. It’s new to Rice, but it’s not a new movement or idea. I think it’s fair to say we wouldn’t be here were it not for all of these other efforts that preceded ours. But I think what is unique about Rice is that we opened our doors in 1912, and a lot of the schools that have come before us on these projects were founded before the legal abolition of slavery. Our project gives us an opportunity to think about the long legacies of slavery and their connections to segregation and racial injustice in the 20th century and beyond.
RT: As for you two personally, how did you get to where you are now, at the forefront of this movement, and what motivated you to lead this task force?
AB: A short answer to that is — similar to the way that anyone ends up on a task force at Rice — is that you’re asked to consider it. In this case, I was asked to consider it by President Leebron, and so that’s how I came to consider it. Why I said yes is because I think it’s an extraordinarily worthwhile venture, and I imagine this isn’t much of a surprising position for a historian. I think that history matters in and of itself, but I also think that the ways in which a university is entangled and comes to terms with parts of its past that aren’t shiny, that aren’t part of the myth of the university, are important to grapple with and to understand. I’m an African American historian, and so just in terms of the focus of a good part of the work, it’s work that interests me professionally. The opportunity to work with Dr. McDaniel was also part of it for me.
CM: Yeah, I can say the same. And I think that neither of us would’ve agreed to do this if we didn’t think it could make a difference to the present and future of the university. A part of our charge is to make recommendations to the university based on that dialogue and that research. And we are excited about that prospect. You can kind of see the fruits of that labor in other places, how it has transformed the way those institutions operate. I think the creation of the task force is a recognition that the university has some areas of needed change, and we care about Rice, so we are hopeful that we can have an impact there too.
RT: You’ve been in existence for about a year, although you said it took about half of that year to get off the ground and get started. What have you been doing in the past year and who’s been involved?
AB: Our first public event, as Dr. McDaniel mentioned, was Ruth Simmons’ visit. One of the things we’ve been focusing on is organizing ourselves into working groups that would tend to various parts of the overall work of the task force. Dr. McDaniel and I also planned two college classes that were intended to begin an important part of the intellectual work of the task force. I taught a course on Black life at Rice, and Dr. McDaniel’s course was focused more on the founder’s relationship to slavery.
RT: What are the missions of your working groups?
AB: There’s a research and teaching arm, there’s another arm of the steering committee that focuses on the larger community of similar projects that Dr. McDaniel mentioned earlier — part of its job is to keep us aware of what’s happening in the larger field and how we can benefit from the work of others, but also how we might be able to illuminate the work that’s happening at other places. There’s a campus programming group, and then there’s a community outreach group which is more concerned with networking outside of the university.
RT: Who from the Rice community is involved?
CM: One of the things the outreach group is working really hard on right now is getting a website up that is overdue, but was disrupted by everything in the spring. That will be a place where everyone can see who’s on the steering committee. It includes faculty, staff, alumni and students — undergraduates and one graduate. There’s good representation across every part of the university.
RT: Could you tell me more about the classes you taught this spring?
CM: One of the first books we read was Craig Steven Wilder’s ‘Ebony and Ivy,’ which is a book that really served as inspiration for a lot of the projects that other universities have done. We spent a lot of time thinking about how the questions Wilder asks in his book can be applied to a place like Rice. One of the powerful things about the book is it asks the questions you would expect a historian of that subject to ask, like what were the economic ties between slavery and the universities, but also he talks about the production of knowledge of universities, and how did ideologies of race and colonialism shape the curricula of those universities and vice versa — what role did those universities play in buttressing ideologies that sustained a system like slavery? It was a helpful springboard for discussion. We then did some work going into the Woodson Research Center and looking at documents, and we were kind of just getting started on that when [COVID-19] hit and shut the library down.
AB: Our first book was ‘Reparation and Reconciliation: The Rise and Fall of Integrated Higher Education.’ One of the things I hoped would be important and powerful about that work, is its examination of Oberlin, and Berea, and Howard as coeducational integrated colleges. One of the reasons I think that’s so useful is because it helps contextualize this idea that desegregation in higher education is this foreign notion that doesn’t make any ground until the middle of the 20th century. No, if you were paying attention to higher education in the late 19th century and early 20th century, you would’ve known about earlier battles. It’s not as if no one could conceive of integrated higher education in the 1860s, 1870s. People did.
RT: I know you haven’t been working for very long, but have you begun doing work on William Marsh Rice himself?
CM: We’ve started that work, but I’m not sure it’s far enough along to report on it. This kind of research is difficult, because it’s not as though you can go into an archive and find a folder that’s labeled “slavery, segregation and racial injustice” and find everything you need. Building out a picture of Rice’s finances, his personal investments in slavery, requires a lot of sleuthing and archival work. Just as one example, it’s public knowledge that Rice enslaved at least 15 people, but that number’s based on one source, which is the 1860 census. When we use that number, it’s giving us a snapshot of the number of people Rice enslaved at that moment in time. But we have certainly started on that work.
RT: You mentioned earlier that the task force is charged with making recommendations to the administration. When you first set out on this work, when did you envision making those recommendations?
CM: We were given to understand that the timetable would probably be two years for us to complete all our work, and I think that’s in recognition of all the time it takes to do the research we’re doing, and to do it well. And so looking at how projects like this at other universities have unfolded, usually there is kind of an initial phase of research and discussion followed by a report that summarizes the findings and makes the recommendations all at once. That’s the way I think we envision our work unfolding, which is to do the work, to host programming along the way, to share some of our research on an interim basis and then make those recommendations at the end of our initial phase. We want the research to inform those recommendations, and so we want that research to be as good as it can possibly be, as complete as it can possibly be, in order to make the recommendations follow the research instead of the other way around. We do realize that doesn’t mean we have to just remain a black box until then. That’s not our intention at all. We plan to have speakers like President Simmons and forums and dialogues all along the way.
RT: Over 2,500 students have currently signed a petition demanding Willy’s statue be taken down, and that demand was also included in a longer list of demands by Black students. Does this activism coming from so many current students impact how you see the work of the task force playing out or place any urgency on making those suggestions?
CM: I think one way is that the activism of students around this issue is part of what a task force like ours needs to document and preserve. What has been included in the archives of an institution like Rice over time is something that has also changed over time. We want to highlight not just racial injustice at Rice, but also the work of students and community members to protest, to mobilize around concern about that history.
AB: One of the things activism around the nature and history of the university does is that it does underline the urgency of these historical questions and the ways that these questions manifest themselves in the present, the ways in which history is not past, and the ways in which it needs to be addressed — the urgency of these historical conversations. This activism is an illustration, and an important one, and I am glad to see that it’s informing a really important conversation at Rice about who we are, who we’ve been, and who we want to be in the future.
CM: Even before recent events, we certainly would have viewed it as part of our charge as a task force to think about the built landscape of Rice and how it’s been used by students, by faculty, by members of the Rice community. All of that’s very much within the bounds of our work, and would have been even without these recent calls. What I do hope is that all of the students interested in this campaign and the urgency around it will encourage more students to join in the broader work that we’re embarked upon. We could use help from anyone who’s interested in doing that work.
RT: So the statue and the presence of William Marsh Rice in promotional materials is something that could appear in recommendations?
AB: Yeah, it’s something that could appear in recommendations.
CM: It’s certainly something that these other projects that we keep referring to have seen as part of the work of these initiatives.
RT: A lot of the discussion around Willy’s statue, but also statues across the country and statues around the world, has been that taking down statues erases history. What’s your take on that, as people who study history?
AB: I want to say first of all, that is the exact type of conversation that is worthwhile and needs to be had. And I think it makes sense to have that conversation with some specificity. So when you raise the question, what does it mean to take down statues, does that erase history, that’s a very general question, right? I don’t have an answer to that question. The question I might have an answer to is a question that has adjectives next to those statues. What type of statues are we talking about? What types of monuments are we talking about? What is the context in which these monuments were built? What’s the context in which they were planned? Understanding those things, in my opinion, helps you come to an informed way of answering that question. The knee-jerk reaction to that question is often, it is a tearing down of history. That’s not my knee-jerk reaction, and I don’t think that’s any historian’s reaction. Historians are looking for context to help us come to as thoughtful of decisions as we can around these matters. Anywhere you’ve seen a statue, it’s not always been there, right? Something else was there before. Any place that you see a statue isn’t the only place it could’ve been. People had to plan where to put it. And so all those things need to be taken into consideration. And answering those things isn’t always easy.
CM: Since you asked as historians, we’ll give you a very historian answer — you have to know the history of particular monuments in order to make decisions about what they meant, what they mean, and whether they should remain. Sometimes what history reveals is that the monument was always itself a kind of erasure — like Confederate monuments in particular. But until you answer those questions, it’s hard to make a final determination. Still, the harm a monument creates in the present has to be taken into account as well as the context surrounding it in the past, and I can imagine cases where no matter what the history of a monument is, there would still be compelling reasons to move or remove it. It’s also important to note that the people who had a say in the creation of statues put up in the South during the Jim Crow Era were a much less diverse group than the democratic communities who have a stake in these decisions now.
RT: Right, that totally makes sense. To be more specific, the question I’m getting at and the questions on the minds of students and alumni right now are about Willy’s statue. But I understand you might not be in a position to answer that.
CM: I think it would be difficult for us to speak without appearing to speak on behalf of the entire task force, so that’s my hesitance. It’s not a reluctance to address that question or think about it, and I think like Dr. Byrd, I’m really glad to see so many students talking about it and asking good, tough questions about the statue. But I think it would be difficult for us to share without appearing to speak for everyone in our group, and we want to be respectful of the deliberations that happen in that group.
AB: I think that’s perfectly fair.
RT: One question I thought perhaps you would be willing to answer is, do you think that the university’s current relationship with William Marsh Rice, whether that’s physical, on campus, or in promotional materials, needs to change? Does something need to change?
AB: The question for me is less, does the university’s relationship with William Marsh Rice need to change? That’s not the question I’m answering. I think the answer to your question is evident in that we’re even speaking now. We have a task force on slavery, segregation and racial injustice. And part of the charge of that task force is to make recommendations. And so if the question is, does the university’s reckoning with slavery, segregation, and racial injustice, does it need to change? Yes. It needs to change. It needs to be more richly contextualized. It needs to be found out. The fact that we exist is an admission that something needs to change.
RT: I think that’s it for my questions. Did you have anything else you wanted to say?
AB: One thing, which is hard to convey because it’s 5:30, is I’m really excited about this work, and about the opportunity that it provides us as professors of the university, the opportunity it provides alumni at the university — but I don’t think I’m more excited for any of those groups than I am for the opportunity it provides current students at this university to come to terms themselves with the university by doing the archival work, to come to terms with it by not depending upon what others say, and using that work to turn the university in the direction they want to see it go.
Byrd is an award-winning associate professor of history and graduate of Rice who focuses on African-American history. McDaniel is a professor of humanities and history who won a Pulitzer Prize this year for his book “Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America,” which tells the story of Henrietta Wood, a woman who in 1870 successfully sued the man who abducted her and sold her into slavery. The Rice community can engage with the task force further at “Movements, Monuments and Racism on Campus — A Conversation with Historians,” a talk taking place on July 6 at 12 p.m. over Zoom.