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The statue is only a starting point

By Laura Berwick     3/27/21 5:31pm

I feel I can make no better response to Mr. Moore's statement published on March 23 regarding his views on how Rice University should address racism than to submit as an opinion piece that I wrote in response to the same survey he is responding to, from the Task Force on Slavery, Segregation, and Racial Injustice. My name is Laura Berwick, Baker College class of 2000, and Drum Major for the Marching Owl Band for the 1999-2000 year. I believe Willy’s Statue should go, but I feel that much more than that is needed. I believe the ideal solution to the fate of the statue and the future of racial equity at Rice is to begin a holistic program to acknowledge, address and atone for our university's racism, past and present.

I believe William Marsh Rice's statue should be removed from its plinth. I believe the statue should be replaced by new art, created by a Black student or former student of Rice University. This art might be abstract, might be neutrally emblematic, such as an owl, or might in some way commemorate and honor the achievements of Rice students of all ethnicities, with the achievements of BIPOC students given pride of place. I further believe that, if possible, Rice's ashes should be removed from the plinth and laid to rest respectfully elsewhere on campus, marked notably but less centrally and less monumentally. I believe the wreath-laying ceremony should be removed from commencement, perhaps performed more privately at another time, and replaced within commencement with something less religiously exclusive.

But I believe all of these changes centered on the statue should be only one aspect of the program we adopt. A museum area recording the university's problematic history would be much better than a statue in the middle of the quad. And I would be incredibly proud to say my university was instituting a program of reparations such as the one being undertaken by Georgetown University, including offering legacy admission status to descendants of the Black people the Rice family enslaved, and whose exploitation profited Rice, which profits our university was founded with.

I know that I owe so much of the good in my life to Rice's legacy, in the form of the institution I graduated from, but I feel that my nostalgia and benefit is dwarfed by the enormity of the trauma that resulted from and continues to result from the human trafficking of Black persons, kidnapped from Africa across centuries, and forced to labor in the new world for the profit of men like Rice. It is, in fact, the Black men and women whose blood and sweat made that money that we really owe for the university we love. And we owe them, not gratitude, that they did what they were forced to do to avoid death and torture, but penitence and recompense.

I have been proud to say I graduated from Rice University. I would be even more proud to say that Rice has ceased to glorify the man who founded it with blood money, while preserving and acknowledging the evils of his legacy. Above all, I would be proud to say that Rice has chosen to turn the fruits of William Marsh Rice's profits to the tasks of repairing the damage of the evils he perpetuated to gain them. 

At this very moment, the secondary trauma inflicted by Black students on Rice campus today, through knowing Rice's history as an enslaver and profiteer, and seeing him still honored in bronze in the center of their campus, is unacceptable. They deserve to walk campus grounds as free from that as I did. My feeling of comfort on campus, of being valued and considered the equal of anyone there, was a privilege, and it should not be a privilege, in that it should be the right of every student there. Moreover, anti-Black racism is not an institution shrouded in the past. It walks and lives today, and I believe Rice University must continue to address its presence proactively.

At the end of the day, my time at Rice was productive and wonderful. I made the best friends I will ever know and grew in the skill and practice of exercising my mind. My time was also very profitable, in the form of an academic privilege that I have leveraged into a rewarding and financially supportive career. That privilege has its parts that I earned, and its parts that I did not earn, but were bequeathed to me unwillingly by enslaved peoples. 

For better or worse, though, my time at Rice is over. The present and future is in the hands of the current students, and the Task Force, and I trust them. Now it is my duty to do with the gifts I have been given the very best that I can. In particular, I strive to do things that would have the enslavers and racists I am in any way indebted to spinning in their graves. Any other use of the gifts I have gained and honed seems self-aggrandizing and self-indulgent. This feedback to Rice University is only one of the things I can do. I will find others. And as much as my rose-gold tinted memories of Rice might mean to me, I am pleased to know the truth of Rice's legacy, not just for the sake of knowing truth, but so that I can have the chance to be a part of making things right.

Laura Berwick,

Baker '00

B.S. in Electrical Engineering

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