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We should educate ourselves on Rice’s history

By Thresher Editorial Board     11/28/23 10:36pm

Rice’s 111-year history is marked by lots of positive impact — and plenty of harmful actions. William Marsh Rice, the university’s founder and namesake, was a slave owner, and from the school’s establishment as a free institution for only white students to Ku Klux Klan meetings occurring on Rice property, the connections to segregation and racial injustice cannot be denied.

In 2020, the Down With Willy movement kicked off in the wake of racial justice protests around the country, calling on Rice to remove the statue of William Marsh Rice from the academic quad. The Founder’s Memorial statue has now been lifted off its pedestal, but the majority of current students had not yet matriculated when Rice made that decision in January 2022. Further, the removal of the statue is not the end to addressing the legacy of slavery at this university. As members of the Rice community, knowing the context behind this is crucial for the fight to make the university a more equitable place for underserved groups.

Rice culture has shifted dramatically in just the few years since the Down With Willy movement started. The majority of current students have only known “Beer Bike Week” and “The Pub at Rice,” not “Willy Week” and “Willy’s Pub.” The statue that used to sit high in the center of the academic quad will now be in a flower bed by the Welcome Center, next to information about William Marsh Rice’s role as a slave owner. 

Regardless of how much the founder’s image is removed from the university, there is value in continuing to research and acknowledge the history of our institution and using it to move forward. The legacy of slavery and segregation cannot be separated from the founding and development of the university, so we all must continue to reckon with it as the institution grows in its second century.

The Task Force on Slavery, Segregation and Racial Injustice, commissioned in 2019, recently released their final report which details in-depth research on Rice’s establishment as a white-only institution and its journey to integration, as well as Black students’ experiences throughout. The report also discusses how Rice’s actions impacted Houston, making the university’s history all the more important to understanding racial injustice in Texas as a whole. Archives of the Thresher relay what was happening within the Rice community, from its early years to integration to the Down With Willy movement.

Black students had more demands in 2020 than just removing the statue, such as admitting more Black students and creating a space akin to the Multicultural Center for Black students to congregate. The Task Force issued similar recommendations in their final report, including having 80 tenure or tenure-track Black faculty within 10 years. Through learning about the history of Black community members’ activism and listening to their experiences, we can support future changes that address the mistreatment of Black students, staff and faculty throughout the university’s history. 

Though Rice continues to improve, we cannot become complacent and stop learning about our history. To be active in the Rice community and work to improve it, we need to understand the long legacy that continues to be felt today. Only then can we make the university more equitable and better suited to the needs of all current and future students.

Editor’s Note: Thresher editorials are collectively written by the members of the Thresher’s editorial board. Current members include Prayag Gordy, Riya Misra, Nayeli Shad, Brandon Chen, Sammy Baek, Sarah Knowlton, Hadley Medlock and Pavithr Goli. Editor-in-chief Riya Misra recused herself from this editorial due to reporting on the corresponding story in our features section.

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