What Ole Miss Can Teach Universities About Grappling With Their Pasts

Comparing the methods of Oxford University in the U.K. with those of the University of Mississippi shows there’s much to learn from the latter’s conscientious attempts at dealing with its history of racism.

Hannah McKay / Reuters

Next month, students at the University of Oxford will return for their fall semester, known as the “Michaelmas” term—named after the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels—to a campus strewn with the sort of colonial- and slave-era tinder that has helped fuel the outrage and protests on university campuses across America.

A statue of Cecil Rhodes, tucked in a niche of an Oriel College building on the High Street, honors the 19th-century alumnus who founded the De Beers diamond company using cheap African labor and left his fortune to endow Oxford University’s prestigious Rhodes Scholarships. Two years ago, when the Rhodes Must Fall movement staged street protests to demand the removal of the Rhodes statue, Oxford Chancellor Christopher Patten, who oversaw the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997, responded with the composure befitting a former colonial governor. If Oxford students couldn’t show the kind of “generosity of spirit” that Nelson Mandela demonstrated toward Cecil Rhodes, and if they couldn’t commit to open inquiry, Patten observed coolly, “then maybe they should think about being educated elsewhere.”

The response was met with dismay and outrage.

Since then, students, and even some faculty, have begun unearthing the English university’s unsavory legacies and benefactions from the slave trade, colonial exploitation, and imperialist wars. They’re the kinds of legacies and benefactions that their American counterparts have been struggling with on campuses such as Amherst, Brown, Georgetown, and many others.

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.

Perhaps the most egregious symbol of Ole Miss’s racist roots is the campus building that honors the former U.S. Senator and Mississippi governor James K. Vardaman, who advocated for lynching and publicly chastised President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt for inviting the African American educator and author Booker T. Washington to a dinner at the White House in October 1901. “Let Teddy take coons to the White House,” Vardaman wrote at the time in the Greenville Commonwealth, a newspaper he owned. “I should not care if the walls of the ancient edifice should be so saturated with the effluvia from their rancid carcasses that a ‘Cench bug’ would have to crawl upon the dome ... to avoid asphyxiation.”

The Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on History and Context was unsparing in exposing the university’s darkest moments. Its findings include a faculty meeting report, from November 1860, in which a student “burned the negro’s cheek with a cigar,” and another, dated March 1860, in which another student sexually assaulted a black woman named Jane, “who lived and worked as a domestic slave in the Chancellor’s private residence.”

The committee drew on the experiences of other universities, specifically Brown, the University of Virginia, Emory, Harvard, William and Mary, and Yale. The Ole Miss team was particularly taken by the findings of Yale’s “Committee to Establish Principles for Renaming,” which cautioned decision makers to “navigate change without effacing the past” and to “align any building name change with the mission of the university, with its deep history, and with its promising future.” The Yale report observed that a university “communicates” its values and history through its building names and campus symbols. “Guided by these tenets,” the Ole Miss team reported to Chancellor Vitter, “the committee hopes we have lived up to their standards.” The committee members were underestimating their achievement.

Few American colleges or universities have faced such deeply embedded legacies of racism and prejudice, or have had to navigate such complex political and social waters. The Ole Miss chapter of the NAACP is as attentive to university decisions as are the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Fewer higher-education institutions still have addressed their legacies in such a comprehensive and proactive manner. Brown University constituted a Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, but restricted its mandate to “factual information and critical perspectives.” Harvard Law School erased its escutcheon–three haystacks adapted from the crest of early slave-owning benefactors—before deliberating on a replacement symbol. In April 2016, Yale University argued convincingly for retaining the name of Calhoun College—named after a 19th-century racist firebrand who declared slavery a “positive good”—only to argue with equal conviction for changing the name in February 2017.

The Ole Miss response has been deliberate, thoughtful, and measured. The university’s leadership, which committed itself to an “action plan” as early as 2014, strived for an “additive process not a subtractive one” while seeking “a just and faithful balance between humility and honesty.” Committee members retained what seemed appropriate to retain; they removed or erased when removal or erasure seemed a moral requisite. They found small, elegant solutions to big problems. The issue of Johnson Hall was resolved with the simplest of orthographic cosmetics: In changing its namesake to Paul Johnson Sr., it distinguished the father, who publicly condemned lynching, from his son, who became a national symbol for resistance to desegregation.

The recommendation was made without waffling or dithering to erase Vardaman’s name from the university’s memory. “Considering the virulent racism which remains Vardaman’s principal legacy,” the committee argued in justifying this damnatio memoriae, “the name makes unwarranted connections between the University and Vardaman.” Members proposed contextualizing texts for problematic monuments, public events that could serve as “teachable moments,” and a museum that would explore the university’s complex historical legacies. They also recommended new headstones for the Confederate soldiers in the cemetery, and “an appropriate marker” for the soldiers of the United States Colored Troops.

The chancellor excluded one of the thorniest issues from the committee mandate: the name “Ole Miss.” The endearing and ubiquitous university moniker—it adorns mugs, keychains, and T-shirts, as well as the university yearbook and the football team, “Ole Miss Rebels”—derives from the term “Ole Missus,” the ante-bellum form of address used by slaves for the wife of their master. “I can assure you that we will continue to use the terms Ole Miss and Rebels as endearing nicknames for the university,” Vitter informed the university community in a June 2016 letter. “Data show that the term Ole Miss is broadly viewed as one of connection and affection, with strongly positive national (and international) recognition.” Vitter called it “one of the more known and respected (and frankly, envied) college brands” in America.

Vitter went on to say that Ole Miss, “along with many universities across the country, continues on a journey to acknowledge and address the challenging and complex history around the issues of slavery, injustice, and race.” He spoke of his university’s commitment to “honest and open dialogue,” to making “our campus more welcoming and inclusive,” to working to “successfully come to grips with difficult aspects of our university’s history and move boldly as a national leader to craft a vibrant future.”

Clearly, Oxford’s Ole Miss is not Oxford University—for starters, the latter consists of 38 relatively autonomous colleges, while the former functions under a more centralized system. But there are lessons in administrative comportment and sensitivity, even humility, that Oxford could learn from Oxford in confronting its tangle of complex historical legacies. Perhaps Chris Patten should add the Ole Miss report to his autumn reading list.