The building previously known as Freeman Hall now also includes the surname of John Mitchell Jr, former editor of the African American newspaper the Richmond Planet. The name of Ryland Hall will not change.
These renaming decisions come after calls from the student body and others to reexamine who the University of Richmond memorializes. Specifically, on April 3, 2019, UR student governments passed a joint resolution for UR to rename Freeman and Ryland Halls because of the men’s links to slavery and white supremacy.
University of Richmond president Ronald Crutcher announced the newly named Mitchell-Freeman Hall and that Ryland Hall would not be renamed, in a Thursday email that also announced the release of reports he commissioned in 2019 to research the two buildings’ namesakes, Douglas Southall Freeman and Robert Ryland.
“I firmly believe that removing Ryland’s and Freeman’s names would not compel us to do the hard, necessary, and uncomfortable work of grappling with the University’s ties to slavery and segregation,” Crutcher wrote in the email, addressed to the UR community. “It would not move us closer toward a fuller, more cohesive institutional narrative.”
Mitchell was known as the “Fighting Editor” and challenged white supremacist views, including those held and published by Freeman, according to Thursday’s email.
Freeman, a nationally known historian and then-news editor of the Richmond News Leader, a newspaper that has since merged with the Richmond Times-Dispatch, often published racist beliefs that glorified the Confederacy, Crutcher wrote.
In an interview with The Collegian, Crutcher said the idea to add Mitchell’s name to Freeman Hall began with a conversation with Shelby Driskill and Lauranette Lee, the researchers behind the commissioned reports referred to in Crutcher’s email titled “‘A Season of Discipline’: Enslavement, Education & Faith in the Life of Robert Ryland” and “‘The Virginia Way’: Race, The ‘Lost Cause,’ & The Social Influence of Douglas Southall Freeman.”
Mitchell was Freeman's foil back in the day, which brings parallelism to the name of Mitchell-Freeman Hall.
“[Mitchell] would, on a regular basis, provide a counterpoint to some of Freeman’s racist editorials,” Crutcher said.
Mitchell also has familial ties to UR.
“One of his great, great nephews graduated from the University of Richmond, and there have been other members of his family who have worked here in the past and one who works here now,” Crutcher said.
Lee sees the renamed Mitchell-Freeman Hall as a way to show the resistance of a Black editor at a time when Black people were seen as less than human, she said, specifically noting Mitchell’s anti-lynching work.
“He was also a contemporry of Ida B. Wells, who was really the one who really pushed people to recognize what was going on with lynching,” Lee said. “I can see how having Mitchell and Freeman interpreted in the same space will give people the opportunity to think about history more inclusively, and to realize that Black people did not just accept what was going on.
“There was constant resistance.”
Freeman’s story is multifaceted. The Collegian podcast “The Westham Project: A Look at Freeman” explores the complexity of Freeman’s editorial stances.
“His views about race sometimes led him to denounce the most extreme racists of white people, but he would do it in a way that kind of furthered his own agenda of racial hierarchies and racial segregation and racial separation,” history professor Pippa Holloway said in the podcast.
Readers can listen to “The Westham Project: A Look at Freeman” to hear more about Freeman’s life and legacy.
Ryland Hall will retain its name, but digital displays inside and outside the building will be added to contextualize Ryland’s place in history and tell the stories of the people enslaved by Ryland who worked at UR, said Amy Howard, senior administrative officer for equity and community and associated faculty in American studies at UR.
“[Digital displays] will allow us a chance to tell a fuller story now, but also to program and update them as our faculty and students recover more stories that have been hidden,” Howard said.
Ryland Hall is currently undergoing construction, but upon its completion the terrace of the Humanities Commons, a planned addition to the hall, will be named after an enslaved person or people who have been identified through Driskill and Lee’s research, Howard said.
According to Driskill and Lee’s research, enslaved people named Sam, Fanny, Nathan, Rachel, Miles, Peter, Hannah, Caroline, Isabella, Nancy, Celia, Albert, Abbey/Abby, Christian, Martin, Sarah, Little John, Willis and others whose names are not known worked on UR’s campus spanning from the 1830s to 1860s.
The name of the terrace will be finalized by the end of May, Howard said, after UR engages the campus community in discussion. Additionally, the names of the enslaved people who have been identified will be engraved into Ryland Hall, Howard said.
Driskill hopes memorializing those who were enslaved will bring attention to their crucial role in UR’s growth, she said.
“When it comes to those who labored every day all around for the students, for the faculty, for the place — they were by the 1850s just as essential to the growth of the institution as Robert Ryland was,” Driskill said.
Lee also emphasized the integral role of the enslaved people who worked on UR’s campus.
“By including the names of people who actually did the labor, we see how integral they are to the making of not only institutions but America itself and this thing we call democracy, really,” Lee said.
Ryland Hall has two namesakes. The general building is named after the aforementioned Robert Ryland, who founded Richmond College; the hall’s library is named after Charles Ryland, Robert’s nephew, who served as trustee, treasurer and librarian of Richmond College.
Conversations about Ryland Hall have concerned Robert more than Charles. Robert Ryland was a pastor at the First African Baptist Church in Richmond, whose membership was made up of enslaved and freed Black people. Ryland also owned enslaved people.
The Collegian explores Ryland’s life in “The Westham Project: Ryland, Religion and Slavery.” In the podcast, former UR president, current professor of American studies and co-chair of the Presidential Commission for University History and Identity Ed Ayers and others dissect Ryland’s complex and at times contradictory beliefs.
“Ryland, you know, baptizes over 3000 people; you know, he’s criticized for being an abolitionist; you know, he’s criticized for teaching Black people to read,” Ayers said in the podcast. “On the other hand, when challenged, he says, ‘I believe that slavery is appropriate, for the current circumstances.’”
Readers can listen to “The Westham Project: Ryland, Religion and Slavery” to learn more.
From early on in Crutcher’s tenure as president, he started hearing stories that were not in history books, which led him to believe that there must be other people and stories still unknown, he said. He first decided to establish the Presidential Commission for University History and Identity, which was the body that originally recommended Crutcher commission the Ryland and Freeman reports, to ensure these stories could be told.
“Grappling with the good, the bad and the ugly of our history and the way these various strands of history intertwine will help us then have some really hard conversations on campus about racism today in the United States, about the impact of slavery,” Crutcher said.
The Collegian’s Westham podcast series further investigates the lives of Freeman and Ryland and provides community members’ perspectives on memorialization at UR and beyond. Listen here.
Contact managing editor Emma Davis at firstname.lastname@example.org.