Race & Racism at the University of Richmond

Joseph Williams

"Your energy is my energy / Your love charges my soul."

-Joseph Williams, 1984

 

Joe Williams

Joseph "Joe" Williams was a black student in the Class of 1984 from Chattanooga, Tennessee. Williams was a member of the football team, a writer for the Collegian, and a member of Phi Beta Sigma, the campus's first black fraternity.

Poem "The Angel"

"The Angel" by Joseph Williams, 1984.

At the bottom of the page, “The Angel” describes the narrator’s lover, a beautiful black woman with “coca skin” and “dark softness,” and his adoration for her. It was one of the first works by a black student to be featured in the Messenger, as well as one of the first to celebrate blackness.

In the early 1980s, the University of Richmond began attempting to change its image into a more diverse one. Williams himself reported on this in the Collegian, describing a new recruitment film that was “designed to portray… black awareness on campus.” This film was misleading, however, in that the black students featured in it were actually portrayed by non-students, whether employees or random Richmonders. The campus still had very few black students attending, despite its branding. The whiteness of the University of Richmond campus shocked Iria Jones, who arrived in 1983, after she had been introduced to the school through this recruitment film. In her oral history, she describes an unwelcoming campus climate that included being called racial slurs and having a party at the Pier that was interrupted by the police.

While the University and many of its students did not treat black students well upon their arrival, these students created their own social scene. Described by Jones, the football team (which Williams was on at this time) was a "mini-family" that helped and protected new black students. Phi Beta Sigma, the University of Richmond’s first black fraternity, emerged on campus as an official fraternity in 1983, providing a valuable social space for black male students. The Multicultural Student Union was started in 1986 as another way for students of color to socialize with each other and discuss their unique perspectives.

The 1980s were also a time of change in the Messenger in that white students began to write about race relations in a positive light. White student Tom Witherell’s “Cocktails at Five” was published in the 1981 Messenger. The poem describes the complex friendship between two “bums,” one black and one white. The white is described as “oppressive” toward his black counterpart, but they both silently deal with each other due to the loneliness that homelessness brings. In 1985, one year after Williams’ graduation, white student Michelle Mahue’s “Black and White” was published in the Messenger, a poem discussing her recognition of black Richmonders on public transportation. Nevertheless, there weren’t many black students submitting their works during the decade aside from Williams.

Joseph Williams