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Students continue pushing for removal of the Founder’s Memorial, updated task force research revealed

Channing Wang/Thresher

By Serene Lee     9/22/20 10:18pm

A group of Rice students have continued the summer protest to remove the Founder’s Memorial through daily sit-ins in front of the Founder’s Memorial since Aug. 31. Shifa Abdul Rahman, a junior at Lovett College, organized the sit-ins to advocate for the immediate removal of the statue. 

Rahman announced his decision to protest daily by sitting at the Founder’s Memorial until its removal in a Twitter post. Since the first day of the sit-ins, which occur from 6-7 p.m. every day, several students have joined Rahman in his protests; an estimated 27 students protested on Sep. 18.

“I simply want the statue to come down from its pedestal and never be in its glorified position anymore,” Rahman said. “If the multitudes of statues coming down over this summer was possible, if [2,761] people equally expressed agreement about tearing down this statue, then this statue can come down as well.”

Rahman said that he believes the statue should be taken down because the effects of the statue’s existence are immediate for Black and Indigenous students, and other students of color.

“[One of my friends] said that them walking by the statue is continuing to perpetuate imposter syndrome and honestly looking back at my time at Rice, I agree,” Rahman said. “The statue is more than just symbolic, it’s causing detrimental effects to Black students at Rice right now. An anti-racist step that Rice has to commit itself to is taking down the statue of its founder as it took down the racist mandate of its founding.”

The petition organized over the summer to remove the statue has received 2,761 signatures at the time of publication. The petition, created by Gabrielle Falcon (Martel College ‘20), referenced the fact that several statues were being taken down at the time across the United States, including the Dick Dowling statue that previously existed in Hermann Park.

Falcon said that she and President David Leebron had a constructive conversation in June about the statue, where Leebron stated that it will take time for the decision to be made. Falcon said she and Leebron have not been in contact since. 

“It’s frustrating because we have seen other universities around the country remove or announce the intent to remove racists’ names, statues, practices, etc. within days of the Black Lives Matter movement,” Falcon said. “Yet, we need more time to discuss and do research. I don’t see any evidence that could redeem [William Marsh Rice] within that research. The bar is on the ground, and it literally is not to own other human beings.”

Leebron said in an email to the Thresher that the ongoing work of the Task Force on Slavery, Segregation and Racial Injustice is an important facet in the discussion about the memorial’s future. 

“The task force on Slavery, Segregation and Racial Injustice is as part of their work broadly exploring the built environment of the Rice campus. The statue is part of that inquiry... In the meantime, [the task force] will continue to engage in conversation and listen to the wide range of views we are hearing from the Rice community,” said Leebron. 

Kendall Vining, co-author of “Tangible Ways to Improve the Black Experience, as Demanded by Black Students: Inaction is Not an Option” along with Milkessa Gaga said that she and Gaga have also spoken to both Leebron and Provost Reginald DesRoches since this summer.

“The meeting was [Leebron and DesRoches] basically going item by item [on our list] and explaining why certain items would or wouldn’t work. It was disheartening,” Vining, a junior at Martel College, said. “However, [Leebron and DesRoches] did mention that they were open to having more conversations though, and I will emphasize that more than anything, because there’s no excuse for [Rice] to do nothing anymore.” 

Vining also said that the list was an amalgamation of demands made by many Black students on campus and a social statement encouraging Rice to start paying more attention to Black voices. Vining and Taylor Crain, a Lovett College senior, are currently working to form a task force that would keep record of and publicize all efforts of the Rice administration making the university more inclusive. 

DesRoches said in an email that the list of demands was too extensive to be fully discussed in one meeting, and he will work to have more conversations with the students in the future. 

“We did inform the students [that we] thought some items [on the list] required more discussion, that some would be controversial, and one or two might have legal implications,” DesRoches said. “The administration is more than willing and ready to meet with [students] again whenever they are interested.”

Leebron said that the task force will continue to engage in conversations with the Rice community. 

“We have taken a number of actions over the last several months in response to issues raised by the students who signed the list of demands, as well as by others,” Leebron said. “Among the most important of these is increasing our efforts to hire a diverse group of faculty this year, and to take a range of actions to be implemented over this year to make our campus more inclusive.”

The Task Force had their first weekly “Doc Talk” on Sept. 11, where task force co-chairs Alexander X. Byrd and Caleb McDaniel discussed historical documents that shed light on the university’s past and founder William Marsh Rice. 

The conversation touched upon a mortgage deed record between Rice, James Love, and Charles Adams for Love’s sugar plantation, which indicated that they commoditized enslaved people as collateral in the event of unpaid debts. 

“Abolitionism thrived in 1830 Massachusetts,” McDaniel said. “[Rice], who is originally from Massachusetts, would’ve been aware of the movement. People have choices.”

According to McDaniel, the deed stated that Rice and company had the right to take into possession 18 male slaves and 44 women and children in addition to other properties. Love was unable to pay his debts, but it is unclear whether Rice received possession of said slaves.

The task force is currently working to provide research towards its steering committee, featuring various Rice faculty, current students, and alumni, who will provide recommendations in the future for how Rice should proceed in becoming a more inclusive place. 

Both Byrd and McDaniel have also found it difficult to offer their opinion about the removal of the Founder’s Memorial.

“We are not the whole task force,” McDaniel said. “It’s important that we let the steering committee deliberate what to do next, without speaking prematurely on their behalf.”   

Falcon said that in order for the statue to be removed, the whole Rice community needs to be involved in putting pressure on the administration to make a definitive action plan for the statue’s future. 

“When [Black students] make up less than 10 percent of the student body, it is easy to ignore us,” Falcon said. “It has to be a community effort, and while I had hoped it would be an easier decision for the university to make, so many wonderful initiatives at Rice have been student-led and I suppose this push towards progress will be no different.”

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