Package by: Ashley Ephraim, Arielle Landau, Brennan Patrick, Imienfan Uhunmwuangho and Kali Venable
Sixty-eight years after the first black student enrolled in the University of Texas at Austin, students are still working toward dismantling racism on campus.
Devin Walker, graduate student in the LBJ School of Public Affairs said that one of the reasons racism is still persistent on campus is because there’s a lack of conversation surrounding race.
“Part of the challenge is that when it comes to race on campus, people don’t talk about it,” Walker said.“There’s very few spaces to engage and talk about race. A lot of people are unaware of the history.”
Walker believes that the lack of conversation on race stems partially from inadequate resources about UT’s racial history. This led walker and a group of graduate students to create Civil Rights in Burnt Orange, an ongoing project that aims to discuss race on campus.
“The goal was to discuss the entire university, its role in desegregation and to discuss how much change and racial progress has happened since Heman Sweatt,” Walker said. “We wanted to create a living website for students to share their experiences.”
The website features interviews from current students and alumni, who talk about specific aspects of their black experience at UT. Several of the interviews are from some of the first black students on campus, who integrated UT in the 1950s. Roosevelt Neely, a creator of the Civil Rights in Burnt ORANGE project and an LBJ graduate student, said that it’s important to highlight the voices of those who come before us so we can gain a better understanding of the present.
“Sometimes there’s a disconnect between the past and the present,” Neely said. “As one of five black students in my graduate program, I often feel very isolated. But I know that people before me went through the same struggle, so I can learn from them.”
For many students, the disconnect between the past and the present manifests through the monuments and buildings on campus. Statues of confederate leaders remained on campus until fall 2017, when the statues of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Albert Sidney Johnston and John Reagan were removed from the West Mall.
Students are now trying to rename Robert Lee Moore Hall. Moore was a racist professor and mathematician at UT who refused to teach black students.
Student Government and the Graduate Student Assembly passed a bill in March in favor of renaming the building. Samantha Fuchs, legislative director for GSA, drafted the bill and said that the momentum from the removal of the statues was motivating in pushing the bill forward.
“A lot of people don’t know about the naming of the building and aren’t aware of the history,” Fuchs said. “I thought that, following the removal of the statues, now is a really good time for the administration to keep taking strides forward against white supremacy.”
Although many students view it as a victory, the passage of the bill is still a small step in the renaming process. The bill has to gain approval from the university president or chancellor, followed by a presentation to the Board of Regents, who have the final say. Even though it’s an arduous process, Fuchs said she hopes the bill will have an impact on the UT community.
“I want this to have an impact at the community level,” Fuchs said. “I want people to be aware and engaged in what their campus is doing. Unfortunately the university is a neo-confederate university and there are examples of racism etched into our university. We have to have a conversation about what that means.”
More recently, the conversation about race on campus has shifted toward a beloved UT tradition: the fight song. On April 17, UT’s student government debated whether to continue singing the Eyes of Texas fight song at their meetings. Dr. Gordon, a black studies professor at UT, presented research at the debate that showed the song’s racist ties. According to Gordon, the song was originally performed in minstrel shows on campus where white students appeared in black face.
“Some people said that it’s tradition and it’s part of UT’s symbolism,” said Jakob Lukaa, an SG representative. “But even though it’s tradition because it’s rooted in history, hopefully all of us agree to move on from that. We shouldn’t participate in it [because] we are giving power to that history.”
Lukas believes that all of the racist structures and traditions on campus should be reevaluated in order to make sure black students feel welcomed on campus.
“I think the university administration should take a look at the cost and benefits [of singing the song],” Lukas said, “If the benefit is that students of color feel a little bit more at home on this campus, that’s a big benefit.”
But in the midst of racism on campus, black students are creating their own initiatives to benefit their communities. Briana Stone, president of UT’s National Association of Black Journalists chapter, is leading a partnership between NABJ and the Daily Texan. The partnership is called “The Five Percent,” and is a compilation of articles about black students on campus. Stone hopes that the stories will show how diverse the black community is.
“The purpose of this project is to kind of shed light on the black community,” Stone said. “We’re always seen as just an athlete, or here by affirmative action. These stories are showcasing students creating their own organizations, students doing great things in the communities, and having great academic achievements.”
Stone said this is the first time in history that the Daily Texan has partnered with an outside organization. She believes that this is the right step in making sure black students are represented on campus.
“I wouldn’t say that the Texan has a racist past, I would just say that it definitely lacks diversity,” Stone said. “This project has definitely shed light on that issue. I think that it’s definitely striking a conversation, not only in our news office, but also on campus.”
As one of the few black reporters on the Texan, Stone has witnessed first-hand the importance of having black writers in the newsroom.
“This April was the 50th anniversary of MLK being assassinated, and I was shocked that not one of the permanent staff members pitched the idea,” Stone said. “So I took it upon myself to do the story. It just goes to show you that these faces of color do matter in a newsroom, because stories can be missed.”
For now, the Five Percent series is sent to end at the of end of this semester. While she recognizes that the series is a step in the right direction, Stone said that the university should be doing more to make sure black students feel welcome on campus.
“It’s kind of sad how small of a black student population we have— on a campus of 51,000, that’s less than 3,000 black students,” Stone said. “Yes this project has made a huge impact, but also the university itself needs to continue to really hammer down on the issues.”