Dear Rice community,
We write today to update you on the progress and future plans of the Rice University Task Force on Slavery, Segregation, and Racial Injustice.
When President David Leebron commissioned the Task Force in 2019, he charged us with investigating, facilitating discussion about, and making recommendations related to the university’s history with regard to slavery, segregation, and racial injustice. After spending the fall 2019 semester assembling a steering committee made up of faculty, staff, students, and alumni, we initiated work on the research parts of our charge approximately one year ago. Our first meeting was held on December 11, 2019, and our first public event was held on February 10, 2020, with a lecture by President Ruth Simmons, Rice Trustee Emerita, former president of Brown University and current president of Prairie View A&M University.
Since that time, events both on our campus and far beyond it have provided fresh evidence of just how deeply intertwined American institutions are with the histories of slavery and segregation. The 2020 murder of George Floyd, who lived most of his life in Houston’s Third Ward not far from our campus, sparked global outrage and mobilized unprecedented numbers of people to join Black Lives Matter protests. These events, along with a heightened awareness of the racially disparate impacts of COVID-19, powered conversations at every level of our society about white supremacy, the commemoration of the past, and the urgent necessity of confronting and redressing racial injustice.
Rice students, alumni, faculty, and staff joined these conversations in numerous forums: in their courses and colleges, on social media, through campus demonstrations, and in task forces specific to schools, departments, athletic teams, and student or alumni organizations. In some cases, these conversations raised constructive new questions that the Rice community has seldom asked or grappled with collectively before, such as whether a statue of William Marsh Rice belongs at the center of the academic quad. In other cases, the events of the past year cast new light on issues of long-standing concern, such as the representation of and support for Black students and faculty on campus.
All of these events also influenced the conversations of our steering committee, which met as a group ten times in 2020. Meanwhile, members of the Task Force worked diligently outside these plenary meetings to fulfill the charge that was laid out for us a year and a half ago.
The most visible products of this work can be reviewed at our website, which includes full video-recordings of six public presentations sponsored by the Task Force and featuring Rice students, alumni, faculty, and preeminent guest scholars. These wide-ranging discussions offer incisive and often moving context to the issues at the heart of our work, and are excellent introductions to some of the questions with which the Task Force is presently grappling. From the website, it is also possible to closely follow our research activity by subscribing to our Doc Talks podcast or by attending the weekly Friday webinars that form the basis of each podcast episode. The podcast will eventually include recordings of all eleven of the Friday Doc Talks webinars we hosted in Fall 2020. Several of these weekly discussions featured research that Rice students themselves have conducted, either in courses taught by the Task Force Co-Chairs or in the Racial Geography Project research collective led by Art History graduate student Adrienne Rooney and Art History Associate Professor, Hanszen Magister, and Steering Committee member Dr. Fabiola López-Durán.
The Doc Talks offer an ongoing, regular update on the work of the Task Force and give insight into the methods, problems, and opportunities related to addressing our charge. Live recordings of the weekly Doc Talks will resume on Friday, February 12, on Zoom. Further, in the spring semester, student researchers from the Racial Geography Project plan to host discussions of their work in the residential colleges. We encourage the entire community to engage with this range of programming, and to tune into other events as they are announced and archived on our website. We are also planning opportunities for members of the Rice community to share feedback directly with our steering committee.
Less visible, but equally important, is our ongoing archival research. By its nature, this kind of historical investigation takes time and patience, all the more so in remote learning conditions. For example, closures and delays caused by the coronavirus at several off-campus archives prevented immediate access to some important historical documents relevant to our work. With the outstanding support of the Woodson Research Center and partner libraries, we are working to accelerate the digitization of records that presently cannot be easily examined in person. Some of these records are now included in Fondren Library’s list of resources for the Task Force, but there are still many more to add. Our aim is to fulfill, as comprehensively as possible, the President’s charge to “develop and participate in the implementation of a plan for discovering, documenting, acknowledging, and disseminating Rice’s past with respect to slavery, segregation, and racial injustice, as well as an understanding of how that history may continue to inform and shape the present state of the university.”
While the full scope of that charge is still coming into view, one part of it is rapidly taking clearer shape: the portion of our work related to the history of slavery. Because of the work of Rice University historians and archivists in the past, some facts about William Marsh Rice’s personal investments in enslavement have long been known and are now becoming better known. But recent scholarship has also cast new light on some familiar sources, forcing a reconsideration of the significance and scope of his commitment to the system of human bondage.
New research has also uncovered previously unknown or little-known evidence about the ways that William Marsh Rice and close business partners, such as his brother Frederick A. Rice, profited from slavery, and about the names, experiences, and resistance of the people they enslaved. Once Rice’s fortunes enabled him to engage in philanthropic work, his significant commitments to slavery shaped the educational institution he later chartered in a variety of ways—from the people he selected to serve as its first trustees to the people he chose to exclude from the benefits of his largess. In short, what we are revisiting and recovering concerning Rice and slavery warrants changes in the ways the university represents and reflects on the story of its origins.
There is still much to understand about the history of Rice that has not been sufficiently known, publicized, or understood before. The legacies of that history remain with us in the present moment and raise questions that we must also consider as part of our charge, such as how to support Black students, how to recruit Black faculty, and how to do justice to the African and African American experience in our curriculum. At its most expansive, our charge asks us to consider and make recommendations about how to make sure that our increasingly diverse university is not only diverse, but equitable and inclusive as well.
In view of that scope, we do not anticipate being able to finish a comprehensive report on all of our research and recommendations this spring. We do, however, anticipate being able to produce a preliminary report focused on one part of our charge: Rice’s history related to slavery and our recommendations related to that specific history. That report on slavery will be completed and released by the end of the spring semester, along with another message to the community updating you on our progress with the other parts of our charge.
Alexander X. Byrd
Co-Chairs, Task Force on Slavery, Segregation, and Racial Injustice