Race & Racism at the University of Richmond

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A Campus Divided

Tegan Helms, Erin Tyra, and Caleb Ward explore the stories of black student athletes and other minority athletic groups at the University of Richmond in the 1970s and 1980s.

 

Who is the Archive?

The University of Richmond has a long, convoluted history with race. To piece together such history, two sources provide the most substantial material: The Collegian and the University Archive housed and maintained by the Virginia Baptist Historical Society. However, after searching for specific material related to black student athletes in the 1970s and 80s, one thing is clear: there is an obvious distinction between what the university recorded via what is in the archive and what the student body recorded through published outlets such as The Collegian. Furthermore, there is a third variable that comes into play: An interview with Rayford L. Harris, Jr., one of the University’s first black student athletes, revealed that the individual experiences of students contradicts both the University Archive records and The Collegian records. This discovery then begs the questions: do the sources reporting the historical events of the University actually dictate and ultimately define the history itself? If so, how do the different sources responsible for archiving such events influence what content is recorded? Through our experience researching black student athletes and the social division between athletes and non-athletes, we hope to explore these questions to gain a better understanding of how the University’s history has been altered through its archives.

Editors and contributors of The Collegian were clearly interested in approaching some of the controversial issues sparked by the societal and cultural changes occurring in Richmond at the time including school integration, racial tensions, and social activism; contrarily, the University was more concerned with documenting materials that helped maintain its positive image and reputation as a prestigious institution. While we can argue that The Collegian did a better job of approaching the reality of the time period and its implications on the University, it is important to consider the authors at The Collegian and how the student body was represented through their language. While we may think we understand the social divide that was present during this time, the articles in The Collegian were often not written by the individuals that the articles were about, and consequently not the person experiencing racial tensions. Instead, a third party reported these issues, therefore giving us a somewhat biased perception of the student body and social environment regarding racial issues in the athletic community. While we might feel discouraged by this, the nature of journalism itself, while trying to remain objective, always has an ounce of subjectivity. Furthermore, the issue is then that, in reality, our University and general society are heavily reliant on third party perspectives when looking at history and are rarely motivated to take into consideration the first party account.

The most interesting articles we found in The Collegian noted that the university was a difficult environment for black student athletes because “there really is no social life to offer the black athlete here” (“Black Athlete Chose Spiders Over Other Reputable Teams"). Thus we were surprised to hear the responses from Rayford Harris reflecting on the positive experience he had as one of the first black athletes on this campus. While Harris may not have explicitly witnessed the apparent social divide between athletes and non-athletes, this issue is still prevalent for our current campus climate. Tegan Helms, a senior student athlete on the women’s lacrosse team says in regards to this issue: "While I do not feel the divide during my day-to-day activities as an athlete, there is certainly a divide between the social groups at Richmond where the athletic community remains its own entity." Without Harris’s interview and Helms’s modern-day perspective, our contribution to this project would remain incomplete because our understanding of the social environment regarding athletes in the 1970s and 1980s would be reliant soley on The Collegian. Most importantly, we, as archivists, must consider how trustworthy the most readily available information is and take the steps necessary to do our own investigative research.

In Jarrett Drake’s speech, "Documenting Dissent in the Contemporary College Archive: Finding our Function within the Liberal Arts," Drake challenges the functions of liberal arts institutions by arguing that “...the implicit function of the liberal arts college is to reproduce structural inequality.” We support Drake’s claim that liberal arts colleges perpetuate inequality through what is archived, who creates the archival material, and most importantly, what is left out of the archive. The Race & Racism Project at the University of Richmond exists to fill in the gaps of what is missing from the university’s archived history to help combat the structural inequality Drake argues exists. Although the University is now taking a new approach to put the pieces of history together, our sources still remain somewhat unreliable in revealing the entire scope of what really occurred during such crucial times. The university’s history will thus remain incomplete and inaccurate if we do not go back in time, critically analyze the third-party accounts, and hear from people like Rayford Harris and Tegan Helms about their experiences. The athletic culture at the University of Richmond has always and will continue to exist as a crucial component to the institution’s pride, reputation, and values, but the current records suggest otherwise, revealing the disconnect between archival sources on this campus.