Francesca Smith, a first-year student at the University of Oregon, has recently pioneered a petition that moves to dismantle a mural deemed as racist from the west stairwell of Knight Library on the University’s campus. The mural, titled “The Mission of a University,” is laced with racist language that reflects an ideology based in white supremacy. The petition has garnered attention from past and previous students of the U of O and also contributes to the larger conversation taking place in the U.S. about murals and statues that celebrate the dark underbelly of American history.
Smith, in her petition, explains that the phrases inscribed on the public building create an environment that makes students of color feel unwelcome on campus. The petition details that the mural, in lockstep with previous micro-aggressions committed by the University, is reflective of the institution’s complacency with racially denigrating symbols and sentiments.
Kelly Lambkin: Tell me about yourself: your major, year and where you’re from.
Francesca Smith: I’m a first-year freshman. I’m potentially a political science major; I’m undeclared at the moment at the University of Oregon but I hail from a suburb of Indianapolis in Indiana.
KL: Do you remember what the initial catalyst was that led you to draft the petition on change.org?
FS: In one of my classes, an intro-level political science class that had to do with the dynamics of power and inequality, the TA for the class said, “I’m going to take you guys on a field trip; I might get in a little bit of trouble, but I’m going to take you anyway.” He takes us to the library and takes us to the stairs that lead up to the special collections, and he has us look and read carefully the mural that stood, I want to say, about four times my height. It’s very tall, it’s an extremely large mural. He showed us a couple of the murals because there’s the west stairwell and the east stairwell that lead up the stairs. He has us look at this particular mural and he didn’t really say much about it, he just wanted us to absorb that that [mural] was still a part of our campus. What the mural, in a nutshell, says is something along the lines of preservation of racial heritage. Oregon, being a historically white state, it was easy to deduce what that meant and what the ramifications of that were.
I later learned that the library had been renovated in 1997 on the dime of Philip Knight, who I think is the founder of Nike and a big donor to our campus. That mural, along with the others that are problematic, was chosen to be kept there still. I found that to be extremely offensive and I immediately, along with my peers, whether they were of color or not, a lot of them felt upset and perturbed by the fact that the mural was still there. After that, I think we were all just a bit disgruntled and so I said: “I’m gonna’ make a petition.”
I get some emails from change.org, I’ve signed some stuff before and I saw that recently a petition that I had signed, a sexual-assault-related change.org petition, had led to legislation being passed. I thought that was an interesting and impactful way for me to get things started in an effort to change what was there in the library.
KL: After determining that something should be done about the mural, can you explain to me the process of drafting your petition?
FS: I had to track down the mural and some information about it, and it was not super easy to find. I ended up using Google, basic level research, and it seemed as though it was kind of hidden. I found that there was a small archive of the artwork and fixtures in the Knight library, it did take me some digging though. I ended up finding that, so that was a primary resource for finding out things about the mural itself and the creators of it.
From there, I branched off and did research on Oregon itself and its past as a primarily white state and having a history of housing members of the KKK, [how Oregon] promoted their agendas and just having that dark history riddled with things that aren’t really spoken of—what a factitiously racially “diverse” and “liberal” area it is. It’s all just surface level, if you just scratch the surface of it you’ll see that beneath it lies an extremely dark and racially charged past.
KL: Do you feel like the mural fits into a larger narrative at UE, or does it stand out in stark contrasts against the university’s values?
FS: I think there are a lot of conflicting statements and ideas that I’m gleaning from the fact that the mural is still there because Oregon has done so much in terms of trying to promote diversity on campus. They have resources available for all different races of people, several different multi-cultural centers and clubs, a diversity scholarship and other things like that; which would be suggestive of a racially inviting and accepting environment. However, other things conflict with that; for instance, the fact that we still have Hawthorne Hall, which is named after a Confederate officer. They (UO) have made a conscious effort to overturn some of the names of other lecture and residence halls that had been named after extremely problematic characters but still some of the names of other buildings are very present.
It’s just kind of interlaced within the fabric of the culture of Oregon, unfortunately. Often people try to excuse it as a product of their time, but it seems like something that could easily be undone. There are all these connections that go back years and years that have to do with who paid money to who and a bunch of other factors that I wouldn’t consider if I wasn’t thinking about it.
KL: When you first posed the petition, were you worried about receiving negative responses?
FS: Absolutely. I definitely wanted to try to protect the identity of the individual who (the TA) brought us to the mural. I made sure that when The Emerald posted the article regarding the petition, that when they got further information on what I had done, I wanted to make sure they wouldn’t find themselves in any trouble. For myself as well, I kind of feared that possibly I would receive backlash from other fellow students or even administration possibly contacting me with some negative feedback; those were all some things that I had been worried about at the time of posting it. I weighed the consequences and I did a cost-benefit analysis of it, to a degree, and I thought “I don’t think that something they (UO) have chosen to keep on campus would be something that they would be able to challenge me for” because they need to be able to accept the ramifications of the actions of the preservation of the things they’re choosing to keep on campus. Me pointing that out wouldn’t be a punishable offense because it’s something that they chose to keep there.
KL: The last time I checked, the petition had a decent number of signatures, you’re at nearing 2,000. Have you been in contact with any administrative members of the University of Oregon to determine at what point that university would potentially bend and remove the mural?
FS: Essentially what has happened is one of the other people who was in my discussion section, who was also shown the mural, expressed interest with me in taking on this project of possibly getting it removed or altered in some way. She took the liberty of contacting someone who then directed her to the Dean of Libraries, who is pretty much in charge of all of the libraries on campus. We ended up getting a meeting with the Dean of Libraries, her name is Adriene Lim. She was very understanding and completely understood where we were coming from and, more or less, agreed with us on what we wanted to get out of this. She had already demonstrated that there had been a conscious backlash from other people noticing that the mural was still there. She expressed to us that we were being heard and we do have plans in the making.
One issue is that there are a lot of statutes and laws in place in Oregon that have to do with preservation of some historical things because the Knight Library is on the historical registry. There’s a lot of hoops to jump through if we were to remove a historical artifact, such as the mural; there would be a lot of legal issues that would have to be addressed. Lim had already worked with a group of people to draft up a poster that isn’t an “excuse,” but more of a contextualization of another mural; the other two murals are interesting in the way that they promote social Darwinism. She’s hearing our concerns and so, temporarily, we’re putting up those posters.
KL: Have you thought about what kind of art you would like to see replace the mural?
FS: Beginning next term, we’re forming a task force and potentially employing a set of different levels of things that we’re wanting to do. What our end goal is, for now, is we’re thinking that we send out a call-out to artists, particularly artists of color, who attend the U of O, to create a piece; it could be video, spoken word-piece, painting or photography and that would be placed next to the mural. The pieces would stand as a response to the mural and for them to exist together.
The thing about the University of Oregon is that they’re very pro-First Amendment and I definitely recognize and respect that. I sense that the removal of the mural would not only face backlash from civil rights organizations but also the laws of preservation of historical things. I definitely understand that there are a lot of hoops to jump through when it comes to that, so we were willing to come up with a compromise. The mural would stay there, except we could offer the response existing in tandem because I also come from an art background so this definitely peaked my interest. I thought that this would be an excellent idea and a great way to work with the statutes and laws in place that are inhibitive of the effort to remove it.
KL: In your petition, you make a point to say that “This mural has no place in 2017 on the campus of a public university. It is not as though the campus library is an anthropological museum, documenting the racial grievances of a past generation, serving as a reminder to not repeat history.” I think this is an extremely important point and was curious if you wanted to expand on that?
FS: I tried to keep up with the news and I know there was a huge explosion when it came to Charlottesville and all sorts of related events surrounding that, and even going back prior to that. Just learning about what went into the construction of Confederate memorials because a lot of them did go up around the Civil Rights Movement to serve as a deterrent to the black population and hearing those things made me extremely upset. As a person who also supports the first amendment to a degree, there is a point where something that is in a public space can encroach on someone’s autonomy and their feeling of safety. These emblems and symbols of racism and such a dark past riddled with violence that is frowned upon by a majority of the population seem to serve an agenda that’s of a bygone era that we shouldn’t look to preserve such ideologies. With the resurgence of the protection of such memorials, there is also a resurgence of xenophobia and racism, so preserving these memorials would serve to promote the agenda of some individuals who are racist and xenophobic. It’s just unfortunate that people see these as emblematic of their own history when, in fact, the Confederate army did lose the war.
I don’t remember where I heard it but someone once said something to the effect of, it would be like if you went to Germany and there was a street called “Hitler Avenue,” it’s just something as ridiculous and absurd as that and you would be taken aback if you heard something like that. It’s these individuals that try to excuse and pardon their own racial biases by placing them in historical context.
Click here to join Smith’s fight to address the racist mural that looms over the West staircase in the Knight Library. You can also keep up with Smith’s progress on her Facebook account in her efforts to #TearItDown.