By Nick Anderson

The University of Richmond announced recently that it has removed from six buildings the names of people who supported slavery and racial segregation, including its 19th-century founding president.

The action reversed a decision the university made a year ago to keep two historical names on the campus map despite their ties to white supremacy.

The renamings at the 4,000-student private university in Virginia culminate a lengthy period of historical research and soul-searching over prominent figures from its past and the roles they played in racial oppression. Last spring, student and faculty protests erupted in Richmond after the university’s board of trustees declared it would not change two building names that had become controversial. Then the board agreed to revisit the matter.

Now, what was Ryland Hall at the University of Richmond is the Humanities Building. The Rev. Robert Ryland, a Baptist minister and one of the namesakes of the building, was during the mid-19th century the first president of what was then known as Richmond College. He also enslaved more than two dozen people, according to the university. Historians say the school paid Ryland for the labor of some of those enslaved people.

In addition, the university stripped the name of one of its prominent 20th-century trustees, Douglas Southall Freeman, from a dormitory now known as Residence Hall No. 3. Freeman was a newspaper editor and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who supported segregation and eugenics and opposed interracial marriage. The “greatest inheritance,” he once declared, was “clean blood, right-thinking ancestry.”

The two buildings named for Ryland and Freeman had been at the center of last year’s uproar.

Four other campus buildings named for 19th-century enslavers associated with the school’s early years were also renamed through the governing board’s action. Gone from the campus map are the names or surnames of Bennet Puryear, James Thomas Jr., Jeremiah Bell Jeter and Sarah Brunet.

“We recognize that not all members of our community will agree with these decisions,” the board of trustees and university President Kevin F. Hallock said in a joint statement. “And we recognize that the University would not exist today without the efforts of some whose names we have removed.

“The Board’s decision to adopt the principles and remove building names, while ultimately unanimous, was extremely challenging. Members of the Board began this process with strongly held differences of opinion, and the subsequent discussions were candid, thoughtful, and constructive. In the end, the Board concluded that the decisions outlined above are the best course of action for the University.”

Mary Kelly Tate, a law professor who is president of the faculty senate, praised the board’s action. “This is a historic moment within the institutional life of the University of Richmond,” Tate said. “It’s an extremely positive path forward.”

Tate had been among those who argued last year that the names of Ryland and Freeman had to go. She said she was not surprised by the board’s reversal. “I was extremely hopeful and had a deep faith that we would get to the right place,” she said.

Many universities recently have renamed buildings or removed plaques and statues that honored enslavers or supporters of racial segregation. In 2020, Princeton University, for example, stripped the name of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, a segregationist, from a residential college and school of public and international affairs.

The University of Richmond, named for the city that was the capital of the Confederacy, has been immersed in a years-long, intensive exercise in self-scrutiny. It launched a fresh round of reckoning after the protests of last spring, appointing a commission to study principles of renaming and surveying members of the university community about the issue.

The leader of the board of trustees, Paul B. Queally, had been a proponent of keeping the names of Ryland and Freeman. In March 2021, the board said that removing the names would be “inconsistent with the pursuit of our educational mission.”

Ronald A. Crutcher, who was president of the university at the time, supported the board’s position and said that the best course of action would be to keep the two names but add context to them and make sure that students learned the full story.

“My goal is to ensure that we as a university community grapple with the complexities of our history in ways that we’ve never done before,” Crutcher said that spring. “It will get messy when you’re honest and you’re telling the good, the bad and the ugly.” Crutcher, the university’s first African American president, retired last summer and was succeeded by Hallock.

Student protests appeared to have a significant effect on the board’s turnabout. The action on the renaming, in a session on Saturday, was described as unanimous.

Shira Greer, 21, a junior from Fairfax County who belongs to a campus group called the Black Student Coalition, called the renamings a “positive” development. “Excited to see this,” Greer said. “Definitely this is a victory and something we want to celebrate.”

But Greer said the university must do more to support students of color and programs such as Africana studies — “to not let this be the end of the changes they make.”