The library at Oxford’s All Souls College is named after Christopher Codrington, who came from a family of 17th-century slave traders that was said to have bred slaves like cattle—a claim disputed by historians—on the Caribbean island of Barbuda. A dozen “tsantsas,” or shrunken heads, collected by English explorers between 1871 and 1936, gaze hollow-eyed from a vitrine in the university’s Pitt Rivers Museum. One cardboard placard explains that “skulls of children” were decorated with “‘bull-roarer’ pendants, to rattle in the wind.”
Last spring, the history faculty hosted a half-day teach-in “intended as a means of reflecting on the history and legacies of Oxford’s relationship to empire and colonialism.” In June 2017, the student organization Common Ground hosted a weekend symposium, “Imperial Past; Unequal Present,” with a panel dedicated to “Making Rhodes History.” A “Working Group on Oxford and Colonialism” regularly convenes concerned stakeholders—students, faculty, and some administrators, including the director of the Pitt Rivers Museum—to discuss “decolonisation” of the Oxford curriculum, the creation of a web-based catalogue of Oxford’s colonial-era sins, and the development of a smartphone app for an Oxford walking tour whose stops will include “a certain famous High Street statue” as well as “smaller less well-known objects and sites.”
Across the Atlantic Ocean, a more integrated approach is being taken at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Mississippi, to address similar historical challenges. A 49-page report by the “Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on History and Context” at Ole Miss inventories historically problematic statues, streets, and buildings, as well as a 12-foot-high Tiffany stained-glass window dedicated to Confederate soldiers, a cemetery for Confederate war dead, and the graves of several of the “men of Lafayette County who served in the United States Colored Troops during the Civil War.”
“Our university has long been committed to honest and open dialogue about its history and to make our campuses more welcoming and inclusive,” the Ole Miss Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter wrote in his instruction to the 14 committee members in August 2016. “As part of the university’s role in transforming lives and communities, we must successfully come to grips with difficult aspects of our history.”
Historic truth can hurt. Ole Miss was founded in 1844 on land that originally belonged to indigenous peoples, and many of its buildings were constructed, according to the report, by “black workers, many of them slaves.” During the Civil War, virtually the entire student body, 135 out of 139 students, enlisted in the Confederate army. A monument honoring their sacrifices, erected in 1907, was part of the Lost Cause movement that saw the proliferation of such statues across the South that have been at the center of recent turmoil—most notably the fatal riots in Charlottesville last month. The Ole Miss memorial bears the inscription “They Gave Their Lives In A Just and Holy Cause.” Then there’s Longstreet Hall, which was dedicated in 1929 and is named after the university’s second president, a slave-owning uncle of a Confederate General. There’s also the Johnson Commons, which honors the family name of Paul B. Johnson, a former governor whose son, also a former governor, is infamous for his “active opposition” to desegregation. In September 1962, Paul Johnson Jr., then the lieutenant governor, physically blocked federal marshals who were protecting James Meredith, the first African American whose admission to Ole Miss was a landmark moment in the American civil-rights movement.