OXFORD, Miss. — Nekkita Beans, a Mississippi native and president of the University of Mississippi’s Black Student Union, stood center stage in a campus auditorium reading aloud the history of a group of men who fought to keep people like her enslaved, illiterate and, in many ways, invisible. The “University Greys,” an infantry unit made up mostly of college students, had fought for the cause of the Confederate Army and in the process “suffered one hundred percent casualties — killed, wounded or captured.”
A stained-glass window depicting the troop was dedicated in their honor on the campus of Ole Miss, as the university is commonly known, in 1891. On March 2, 2018, nearly 120 years later, a plaque with the University Greys’ history was added near the window as a way to “contextualize” the window’s place on campus. In the past, the troop was celebrated for its heroism in battle, but the new plaque also acknowledges the injustice of the cause for which they fought, and the harsh legacy of slavery.
Beans read the text as part of a ceremony dedicating a total of six plaques that were placed near and in campus buildings whose long histories are inextricably linked to slavery, the Civil War, and the state’s racist past. The plaques, which acknowledge that past, are a central piece of the university’s effort to move beyond its reputation for being unwelcoming and hostile toward African-Americans.
But racist incidents are a part of everyday life for students here, many say, and students and alumni question whether acknowledging the institution’s racist history is enough to overcome it. Black and white students say the plaques are a good first step, but more will need to be done to help the university move forward.
“I think the contextualizations are a milestone, but I think that it’s kind of a foot in the door for progress. I don’t think that it should end at the contextualization plaques,” said Makala McNeil, an African-American senior who attended the event.
Ole Miss is well known for racism: In 1962, the National Guard had to be called in to combat violent riots that that erupted when white demonstrators protested as the institution’s first black student, James Meredith, registered for class.
While the scope of racism at Ole Miss has diminished over time, racist incidents continue to plague the school. In 2014, a black student was attacked by a group of men in a truck as she returned to an off-campus housing complex, largely populated by Ole Miss students. The men doused her with alcohol and called her a black nigger.* In a separate incident, the woman said, a young white man spat on the ground near her and told her she couldn’t live in the housing complex because she was black. In 2015, after the school agreed to remove the state flag with its Confederate emblem from campus, students and alumni formed the Our State Flag Foundation to bring the flag back. In 2016, a former student pled guilty to hanging a noose around a campus statue of James Meredith, the student white protesters fought to keep out more than 50 years ago.
Many black students here have personal stories of racist encounters. McNeil remembers attending a fraternity party as a freshman and overhearing two white students using a racial slur to refer to black people. “Y’all are going have to clean the place up after all these niggers have come,” McNeil recalled one of the students saying. She left the party.
Beans, who gave the reading about the University Greys, said she had also encountered racism. Earlier in the school year, a white student came to the office of the Black Student Union, a space it shares with the student government, and told her she had no right to be there. “It was this person’s mission to make myself and other students in that room feel unwelcomed just because of the color of our skin,” Beans said.
Many colleges and universities are grappling with their historical connections to slavery. Ole Miss is a member of Universities Studying Slavery, a consortium of 37 institutions, most of them U.S. based, actively working to address issues of race and inequality on college campuses and “the complicated legacies of slavery in modern American society.”
In 2017, Georgetown University acknowledged that it owed its existence to the slave trade; it apologized for selling 272 slaves in 1838 to finance the university. The school renamed a campus building Isaac Hawkins Hall after the first slave listed in the sale document. That same year, the University of Virginia, which leads Universities Studying Slavery, removed plaques honoring Confederate soldiers from a campus building, and the University of Texas at Austin removed confederate statues from its campus.
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Ole Miss decided to take a different path. After community backlash over the 2016 installation of a contextualization plaque — absent any real context, many say — to explain the history behind a confederate statue, the university decided to form a larger committee that would solely focus on identifying additional sites on campus that needed descriptions of their links to slavery and racism. From the 49-page report presented to Chancellor Jeffrey S. Vitter in June 2017, six sites were chosen. Plaques were placed near Barnard Observatory, Lamar Hall, Longstreet Hall, George Hall, and Ventress Hall (home of the University Greys stained-glass window). A plaque between Ventress and Croft Halls recognizes that slave labor was used to construct some of the university’s most famous buildings.
Vardaman Hall, named for James Vardaman, a former Mississippi governor who advocated for lynching and adamantly opposed providing education to African-Americans will not get a plaque. Instead, it will be renamed.
Jeffrey Jackson, a professor in the sociology department at Ole Miss, is a member of the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on History and Context, which spearheaded the creation of the plaques. “You can tell much of American history through what happened on this campus,” he said, highlighting the campus’ ties to the migration of slaves, the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. “There’s so much that students don’t recognize often enough, but it’s also our fault because we haven’t done enough to tell those stories in a public way,” he said.
Last September, state higher education leaders met at a plantation in southern Mississippi and commended the effort. The plaques provide a “platform to have a conversation both about our history and also the direction that we see ourselves going as an institution,” said Katrina Caldwell, the school’s first vice chancellor for diversity and community engagement, who started the job in January of 2017.
She recognizes that not everyone may agree with the school’s decision to create the plaques. “We welcome those opportunities to have deep dialogues from both sides, from all sides,” she said.
Students are ready to discuss them. One of the plaques, titled “The University’s Enslaved Laborers,” honors the “enslaved individuals” who constructed some of the institution’s first buildings. But others, McNeil said, read like neutral — or sometimes even laudatory — biographies, instead of critiques of how the men described promoted slavery and oppression.
A plaque outside Lamar Hall outlines in detail the political career of Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar II, “a lawyer, planter, and slave owner” who served for several years on the university’s faculty. It lists Lamar’s stints in the U.S. House of Representatives, Senate and Supreme Court and his role in writing the state’s Ordinance of Secession. The disastrous impact of his white supremacist views on the future of black Mississippi receives short shrift: A sentence notes his “national prominence obscured the active role he played in dismantling Reconstruction in Mississippi to the detriment of the state’s African-American citizens.”
The plaque outside George Hall, named after James Zachariah George, notes the building honors the man “most responsible for crafting the ‘Mississippi Plan,’ a program of voter intimidation, violent repression, and riot aimed at returning his state to white Democratic rule.” It adds states across the South copied his plan for preventing African-Americans from voting “until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.” George’s main link to the university, according to the plaque, was his role as a trustee for one year, during which he attended one meeting.
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If it was up to McNeil, the school would rename the buildings — and not just Vardaman Hall. “We would be getting rid of the stained glassed windows. That to me is how you fully reconcile,” said McNeil, a member of the university’s student government who was born in Grenada, Mississippi. But she also acknowledges that the plaques add a learning component to campus and believes students need to know the school’s dark racial history.
Students and alumni say race relations on campus require constant nurturing and a concerted effort by all — students, faculty and administration — to improve.
One roadblock to opening up more conversations and making black students feel more welcome could be that African-Americans are still a small minority on campus. A Hechinger Report analysis of 2015 data revealed Mississippi had the widest gap — 40 percent — in the nation between the percentage of African-American students who graduated from public high schools in the state and the percentage who matriculated in the flagship university in the fall. From 2010 to 2015, the number of African-American freshmen enrolling in the school dropped eight percentage points, but, according to university officials, the group’s enrollment has since increased slightly, rising from 389 to 417 between 2015 and 2017.
The retention rate for black freshmen in recent years has been between 85 and 87 percent, said Noel Wilkin, the university’s provost and executive vice chancellor for academic affairs. The university hired Caldwell, the vice chancellor for diversity, in part to recruit and retain more underrepresented minorities, he said.
Caldwell pointed to new university programs intended to help attract more students of color, such as the conference for MOST, Mississippi Outreach to Scholastic Talent, which started in 2015. MOST targets high school seniors who are members of underrepresented minorities and brings them to campus for three days. The teens meet with faculty and current students, attend a college class and get a feel for campus life. About 30 percent of students who participate in MOST enroll at the university, she said.
Some students are taking steps of their own to encourage a progressive shift at the university. Student group Forward Mississippi was founded in January “to advocate for a more diverse and inclusive environment here on campus, around the Lafayette-Oxford community, as well as across the state of Mississippi,” said Levi Bevins, a white junior from Alabama and the group’s cofounder.
Forward Mississippi’s social media manager, Emily Hoffman, a white student from California, said the organization passed out stickers at the school’s last home football game that said “All Are Welcome.” The stickers are intended to combat the message on stickers passed out by the Our State Flag Foundation, whose motto is “You Take Our Money, You Fly Our Flag!”
“We do live in Mississippi. And there are a lot of people who are hesitant to change here,” Hoffman said. Many in the Ole Miss community talk about tradition, she said, and often use it as a crutch. “Is it tradition of racism and oppression, that kind of tradition, that we want to keep moving forward?”
Caleb Herod, an African-American who graduated in 2012, speaks fondly of his time at Ole Miss and the friends he made as a student. A hometown boy — he attended high school in Oxford — he had a strong network of family and friends on and off campus. The more inclusive political climate at the time also helped. “My college experience began with President Obama being elected,” he said.
As a student, he was active in One Mississippi, a group dedicated to promoting social integration on campus and pushing for healthy dialogue between students from different backgrounds. He also praised the work of the administration at the time. “They backed us up,” said Herod. While he was an undergraduate, the university removed the school’s controversial mascot, Colonel Reb., and encouraged the student body not to say “the South will rise again” at games.
But he, too, navigated the campus with caution. “I also knew places where I probably wasn’t going to be wanted,” he said.
When it comes to the plaques, he’s unsure what impact they will have on campus race relations. “I don’t know the last time I’ve read a plaque,” said Herod. “I never really cared about the names of certain buildings on campus while I was there.”
Students remember more about how they feel at a school than about the names of campus buildings, Herod said.
Jake McGraw, a white University of Mississippi graduate and a public policy coordinator at the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, thinks the plaques are a step in the right direction.
“The plaques have value,” said McGraw, who cofounded One Mississippi. But he added they should be a part of a larger conversation — and of substantive actions — to improve campus race relations. “If we’re closing up shop after the installation of a few plaques, then I think that we’ve shown that we weren’t up to the task,” he said.
The contextualization committee’s final report advocated other changes to the school’s landscape that have yet to be rolled out, such as creating a marker to honor the U.S. “colored” troops from Lafayette County who served in the Civil War’s Union Army.
More concrete next steps, however, are unclear.
After the contextualization report came out, the chancellor told faculty and department heads to look for opportunities to spread understanding “through their own discipline or field-specific areas,” said Caldwell. “I think it’s unleashing that work to those experts who do this really well, who not only can give us the intellectual pieces to this history, but also opportunities to have a contextualized dialogue within their own fields of study, research areas, interest.”
Meanwhile, students like McNeil are eager for the university to do more to embrace diversity and reckon with its past.
“Seeing a slave owner’s name is an eyesore to me,” said McNeil. “The contextualization can be there but the name’s still going to be on the building. And that gives some credence to what the university wants to uphold.”
* The Hechinger Report deplores the use of this term; it is being published because we believe its use is central to an essential element of this story.