Observing Contextualization Through the Eyes of Barnard Observatory

By Mackenzie Ross, Allegra Sgroi and Gracie Snyder

Deep in the heart of the University of Mississippi campus radiates the phrase “a reminder of the university’s divisive past.”

From the base of the Confederate Statue, these words reflect a movement occurring across the university’s campus - the action of contextualization, seen as a compromise between glorifying history and erasing it completely.

“We’re at the University of Mississippi, founded in 1848, and that was a time for which there were a lot of voices that were not at the table,” said Dr. Donald Cole, assistant provost and a co-chairman for the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on History and Context (CACHC). “Practically everything done was done voiceless of those particular groups...so, we thought contextualization would be another way to address some of the concerns these groups brought forth.”

Dr. Donald Cole speaks about the contextualization occurring at the University of Mississippi, specifically relating to the Confederate Statue and Barnard Observatory. Dr. Cole serves as assistant provost and a co-chairman of the Chancellor's Advisory Committee on History and Context. Photo taken by Mackenzie Ross.

Beginning with a committee of four under Dan Jones’ chancellorship, the idea for contextualization, specifically of the Confederate Statue, transitioned to the formation of the CACHC in March 2016 by current Chancellor Jeff Vitter. According to their website, the CACHC sought to adhere to the 2014 Action Plan for the university, particularly addressing Recommendation 5 of the plan that urged the university to “offer more history, putting the past into context” and to do so “without attempts to erase history, even some difficult history.”

With the initial goal of finalizing the contextualization of the Confederate Statue, the CACHC has enacted plans to rename certain campus buildings and contextualize others, specifically that of Barnard Observatory. Barnard, along with Hilgard Cut, Croft Hall and the Lyceum will share a plaque noting that these projects were constructed with slave labor. Apart from architects and connections to northeastern and European education, enslaved people performed the physical labor of building these projects.

Completed in 1859, Barnard Observatory began as namesake Frederick Barnard’s goal to establish the university academically and scientifically. Despite suffering from hereditary deafness, Barnard graduated from Yale University and served as the university’s third chancellor before heading north to become the president of Columbia University after the start of the Civil War.

“At first, he was clearly focused on the sciences and mathematics hoping to establish principles and scientific standards simply as an educator with an inquisitive mind,” said Ned O’Connor, Barnard’s great great nephew. “At some point he also focused on trying to improve education for the deaf…[and] as the president of Columbia, he pushed hard in the latter years of his career to establish a college for women.”

Barnard’s tenure also presented its challenges. Within the pro-slavery south, Barnard faced struggles of how to handle his personal convictions amidst being chancellor.

“I think the answer is that fundamentally he was pro-Union and viewed slavery as a fundamentally "evil" practice,” said O’Connor. “That said, it seems apparent that he understood the position of the South and the cause for the political climate of the times regarding this topic, so I am not sure you would use the term abolitionist.”

Appearing in the University of Mississippi's 1861 Classbook, this picture marks one of the last photos from Frederick Barnard's time at the university. After the Civil War began, Barnard and his wife headed north, where he eventually became president of Columbia University in New York. Photo courtesy of the University of Mississippi's Archives and Special Collections.

Along a similar thread, the CACHC’s efforts have not come without criticism either, with some feeling that contextualization does not represent the entirety of opinions on campus.

“In my own opinion, I think contextualization is fine in some sense; like if you want to make a plaque that recognizes that the Lyceum was built by slave labor, I think that’s fine,” said Dylan Wood, senior accounting major. “However, if it comes to the statue in the circle, I think it’s a little arrogant for a person or board of committee members to try to contextualize something that was built 100 years before they were born.”

Rather than having committee members decide certain actions for contextualization, Wood believes more student representation is necessary.

“I definitely think there should be more student input on it,” said Wood. “I feel like there should be at least three people from each class to represent Ole Miss and the changes made.”

Similarly, some consider there to be a difference between the contextualization of buildings and of statues and that trying to fit them into the same equation seems unjustified.

“A building has another purpose, has the purpose of hosting classes...academic purpose; the only purpose of a statue is to symbolize something that a specific group of people want to symbolize,” said Francisco Hernandez, a senior international studies major. “In those cases, contextualization might just be kind of an excuse to keep monuments in place.”

In response to the critics, Cole asserts that contextualization in both instances only represents a small part of the story to be told.

“Some people see the process as one that tells the whole story, but there’s just no way to tell the whole story; the whole story will be told in the courses that we take...in the history books that we write,” said Cole. “It [contextualization] spurs you to want to learn more.”

Other Resources Used: http://chancellor.olemiss.edu/chancellors-advisory-committee-on-history-and-context-final-report/?utm_source=social&utm_medium=twitter&utm_campaign=socialanalytics (gives more details about the contextualization on UM's campus - no timeline has yet been set for placement of the Barnard, Croft, Hilgard Cut and Lyceum plaque); https://chancellor.olemiss.edu/former-chancellors/ (note Barnard is listed as the third chancellor, which is interchangeable with president - he was the first officially named chancellor but can be considered both the third president and/or third chancellor); http://southernstudies.olemiss.edu/about/barnard-observatory/ ; UM Museum.

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