University of Richmond President Ronald Crutcher commissioned research about UR’s institutional history in 2018. More than two years after the effort was initiated — and only a few months from the end of his tenure as president — Crutcher reflected on the progress UR has made in a March conversation with The Collegian.
Crutcher created the Presidential Commission for University History and Identity in November 2018. He charged the commission with three tasks: to explore how UR’s institutional history is recorded, preserved and made accessible to a variety of audiences; re-examine UR’s past to identify people and narratives previously excluded from its institutional history; and recommend ways to acknowledge and communicate UR’s history inclusively.
Crutcher said he was inspired to tell a more inclusive history of UR after he met Barry Greene, ‘72, one of the first Black students to attend UR. Greene entered UR alongside three Black women, including Isabelle Thomas, now Isabelle LeSane, and Madieth Malone, both members of the class of 1972, Crutcher said.
In November 2018, the same month Crutcher created the commission, the UR community celebrated the 50th anniversary of the school's first admission of Black students.
“[Greene] was introduced to me as the first African American to live on campus, which is true,” Crutcher said. “He was not, however, the first African American to get an undergraduate degree from here, because when he entered in 1968 there were three women who entered with him. It just happened that they lived at home; they didn't live on campus.
"It occurred to me, if we had missed this part of the history, then [what are] the other aspects that we had missed too?”
Crutcher’s attention to institutional history came to include what is now known as the Westham Burying Ground. In 2018, though, the burial ground was known to some members of the UR community as a rumor, he said. Articles and documents dating back to the 1900s revealed evidence that a burial ground for enslaved people exists on what is now UR’s campus.
Crutcher commissioned a report aimed at learning more about the evidence of the burial ground. In January 2020, Crutcher shared the report, which outlined the history of enslavement on the land that is now UR’s campus, in a message to the UR community.
Shelby Driskill, a School of Professional and Continuing Studies graduate student, and Lauranett Lee, a lecturer and public historian, were the lead researchers of the report, titled “‘Knowledge of this Cannot be Hidden:’ A Report on the Westham Burying Ground at the University of Richmond.”
The last known enslavement-era owner of Westham Farm — the plantation that became UR’s campus — was Benjamin Green, who owned the land from 1855 until 1868, according to the 2019 report.
In later research, Driskill found evidence of three people enslaved by Green who were baptized by the Rev. Robert Ryland, the founder and first president of Richmond College, according to an article in The Collegian.
Crutcher published a New York Times editorial in 2019 addressing the existence of the burial ground on UR’s campus.
"In that editorial, on behalf of the board, I apologized for the role that the university played — particularly the board played — in allowing the desecration of those graves," Crutcher said.
The 2019 report includes documents that confirm members of UR were aware that a cemetery existed behind what is now Puryear and Richmond halls near the southeastern edge of Westhampton Lake as early as 1912, according to Crutcher’s January 2020 message to the community.
“In July of 1912, Warren H. Manning, landscape advisor for the new campus, notified Richmond College board chair — and prominent Lost Cause proponent — James Taylor Ellyson that a planned new road would traverse the graveyard, including ‘at least 20 graves,’ and recommended relocating any human remains to another cemetery,” Crutcher wrote in the message. “Manning added, ‘Knowledge of this cannot be hidden.’”
Records did not explain how UR responded to knowledge of the burial ground, but evidence indicated that the knowledge was met with indifference and the road was constructed, Crutcher wrote.
UR has since expanded its institutional research to try to identify people interred at the Westham Burying Ground and find their descendents, Crutcher said.
"Through this process of the commission, we not only discovered the location of the graveyard, of the burying ground, but we've also now — we know some of the people who we think were buried there,” he said. “In fact, two weeks ago, about 25 of those descendants made a drive-by on campus.”
Crutcher spoke to the descendants who visited campus, he said. Some were first-time visitors, he said, and other descendants were employees of UR.
UR’s goal is to find a way to permanently memorialize the burial ground, Crutcher said.
Crutcher established the Burial Ground Memorialization Committee in January 2020 as a group to engage the UR community in a constructive dialogue about the memorialization of the burial ground, according to UR’s website.
The committee plans to release a set of recommendations about memorialization by the end of the spring 2021 semester, Crutcher said.
Crutcher noted how conversations about the burial ground have come alongside other efforts to acknowledge UR's institutional history, such as the Board of Trustees’ recent decision to rename Mitchell-Freeman Hall and keep the name of Ryland Hall.
Crutcher said the inclusive history initiatives are about more than just the recent renaming, however.
“The project includes a way to utilize our beautiful campus to help those who come and visit campus to engage with a history of the university [and] a history of the land,” he said.
A timeline of the history of the land that is now UR’s campus can be found in a 2020 report titled “Paths to the Burying Ground: Enslavement, Erasure and Memory,” authored by Driskill and Douglas Broome, senior programmer and analyst in Information Services.
Crutcher shared his own vision of what memorialization at UR might look like, citing the German Stolpersteine, or “stumbling stones,” as a potential way of creating a path of remembrance on campus.
“[Stolpersteine] are little plates that have the names of Jewish people who lived in the house in front of which those plates are placed,” he said. “They're in the sidewalk, but they're raised from the sidewalk so you're intended to stumble on them. Because they want people to look down and read the names. The purpose is to help Germans not to forget the atrocities of the Nazis.”
Crutcher said UR could employ a similar idea and place plates around campus that would give viewers a code to view different profiles of UR’s history — including the stories of W. W. Browne, the founder of the Grand Fountain of True Reformers, who owned 600 acres of land including parts of UR’s current campus grounds, or the stories of Greene, LeSane and Malone.
“[It would] use our beautiful campus and landscape as a way, not only for people to walk around the campus and, you know, enjoy a nice walk, but also to engage with the history of the land of the university, and to some extent the city,” Crutcher said.
Crutcher said a plan for the memorial would be decided before he steps down from the university presidency. UR administration recently announced Kevin Hallock will be UR's next president, starting in fall 2021.
Permanent memorialization of UR’s history, as well as the history of the land UR currently occupies, is an essential way to ensure history is not forgotten, Crutcher said.
"Up until a year and a half ago, it was forgotten,” he said.
Crutcher said one of his primary interests in learning history is to understand historical events in a way that would allow people to prevent future suffering.
“For instance, one of the things that I hope that will happen through the renaming of Mitchell-Freeman Hall and [by] telling the full story of Ryland and then honoring those who were enslaved, is for people on this campus to learn more about Black history, and to see how Black history is an integral part of American history,” Crutcher said. “Unfortunately, that history is not taught.
“Not only that, I also want our campus as a community to grapple with racism and segregation and all those things. Because unless you understand that and can see what harm it caused, you can repeat it in a few years.”
Crutcher said taking steps to prevent the fictionalization of history was also essential, and cited the Lost Cause ideology, which reports a belief that the South’s motives and involvement in the Civil War were noble, as an example of a fabricated narrative.
“Why did people believe that? Because they didn't know what the real history was,” Crutcher said. “I don't want to see that repeated in the future."
Contact investigative editor Morgan Howland at email@example.com.