The University of Mississippi unveiled six new contextualization plaques this month, completing the two year process of planning and discussion between the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on History and Context and the local community.
The marble plaques aim to add context to the buildings on the Ole Miss campus that have ties to slavery. University leaders saw the need to recognize the reality behind the history of the buildings, which to many are a painful reminder of the past.
A ceremony to unveil the plaques was recently held at the Gertrude C. Ford Center, where student ambassadors and CACHC members introduced the new plaques in front of an audience of students, faculty, and community members.
After the ceremony, shuttle transportation was provided for those who wished to visit each plaque on campus. As the wind chilled a rather sunny Friday on the last day of February, many visited the markers.
As Black History Month ended, Chancellor Vitter said it was the perfect time to acknowledge our unfortunate history and recognize those who sacrificed themselves to provide a greater, diverse university for future generations.
“This is to commemorate the support of the committee,” Vitter said, “and to the commitment of unity and diversity within the community.”
Plaques placed outside of Longstreet Hall, George Hall, Lamar Hall, Barnard Observatory and inside Ventress Hall offer historical information about for whom the buildings and monuments are named.
Much of the university’s difficult history is displayed on each plaque. One outside the Croft Institute recognizes the enslaved laborers who constructed much of the campus and shares the harsh reality of their lives.
“Slaves suffered beatings and other abuses documented in university records,” the plaque reads. “The University of Mississippi today honors the legacy of these enslaved individuals and acknowledges the injustices under which they lived and labored.”
To many, our cultural history remains a fist-clenching reminder of the struggle the African-American community has long endured. In contrast to other situations in which cultural history has been removed because of racial ties, Ole Miss has taken a different route.
The words of John R. Neff, keynote speaker for the ceremony, articulated the true meaning behind the contextualization of the university’s controversial past.
“We want to make sure nothing is hidden, that nothing is erased,” said Neff, who serves as associate professor of history and director of the Center for Civil War Research. “As we continue to evolve and progress, we are setting roadmarks that say, ‘Never again will we do anything in the dark or behind the scenes, and whatever we do, it is for the benefit of the community.’”
The plaques were received favorably by many students. Ole Miss freshman Nathan Lancaster believes contextualization is a step in the right direction.
“Embracing the past rather than removing it seems to show more greatly the devotion of a community to move forward,” Lancaster said. “The past sheds a light to those who, brick by brick, built our campus under the oppression of the sins of our ancestors, while simultaneously tearing down barriers that once divided our university.”
After witnessing the contextualization ceremony, Ole Miss student Allen Coon said he believes the community and university should accept responsibility for the past, and there must be some due owed to enslaved laborers.
“We are who we are today because of those slaves who built our university,” Coon said. “I have never felt more strongly than when sitting in that room that the university owes reparations.”
With the forming of the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on History and Context, many believe this is a step forward in providing greater understanding between those in the community and those in leadership positions.
Neff said acknowledging history and context is a way to lessen the gap between social groups in today’s divisive cultural climate.
“It begins with openness,” Neff said. “From this day forward, we are making sure everything we do is transparent.”
For more information on the plaques, visit www.context.olemiss.edu, or see them in person on the campus of the University of Mississippi.