On the evening of October 2, 2020, Rice students gathered in the academic quad to answer one question: “who or what represents Rice University and what its values should be?” Answers to the open question were scribbled in sidewalk chalk on the pavement and even on the pedestal of William Marsh Rice’s statue. A few of them are featured above.
The creative project was part of that day’s sit-in at the statue, an ongoing effort of student activism that began in August when Lovett College junior Shifa Rahman pledged to sit at the academic quad’s monument to William Marsh Rice every day until the University administration took it down. In the growing Down With Willy movement that resulted, students and groups have gathered from across campus to support the statue’s removal. In the process, they created an incredible spectrum of creative work in order to share information about protests, condemn the racism of William Marsh Rice and his University, and bring together students and community members in support of the cause. The following works of art, all created by current students associated with the sit-ins, don’t just expose the racism of Rice’s past and present, but also actively participate in the imaginative, hopeful process of creating a different future for the University: one where an enslaver’s monument is no longer awarded a place of honor.
Last summer, Black students organized a list of demands “address[ing] the systemic policies within Rice University that negatively impact Black students in order to move towards Black liberation.” These demands included the removal of William Marsh Rice’s statue, calling attention to a part of Rice’s history that many prefer to erase, but which continues to affect the lives of many students today. In truth, William Marsh Rice is widely remembered for founding our University and later being murdered by his butler, but his white supremacist views and direct participation in the institution of slavery are more commonly glossed over. Rice actually profited heavily off the antebellum cotton trade in Texas, and he himself enslaved at least 15 people. A clear and direct stakeholder in the economy of slavery, he later served for a year in the Houston slave patrol. After Rice’s death, his wealth – in large part gained through his involvement and support of slavery – was used to found the Rice Institute, which he envisioned to be for “whites only.” His wish held lasting power for the University, whose first Black PhD student, Raymond Johnson, enrolled in 1964 – more than half a century after the Institute’s founding.
Even as the Rice administration continues to view “Willy” as an iconic element of the university brand, the legacy of William Marsh Rice’s violently racist beliefs and actions weighs heavily on our campus, particularly affecting the lives of Black students and other students of color. Currently Black students represent just 7 percent of undergraduates Rice, and this small population is spread thinly across campus by virtue of the college system, which boasts that each residential college has diversity comparable to that of the university as a whole. As a result of this system, however, often only a handful of Black students live in each residential building, producing profound isolation and disenfranchisement for many while fueling the overall appearance of diversity on campus. All of this begs the question of what exactly “diversity” means, and who it is intended to serve on campus. And at a University where three students dressed up in ICE costumes for Halloween in 2019 with few serious repercussions from the administration, it is all too evident that the interests and concerns of students of color are not a top priority. Often, they are excluded from the conversation entirely, even as students themselves speak out over and over for change.
Rice’s statue thus represents far more than the man himself. It is an emblem of his white supremacy and his racism, certainly, but it is also a physical reminder of the material ways those ideals are still very much alive on campus; and its continued presence and glorification speaks directly to the Rice administration’s utter disregard for the well being of Black students and other students of color, even as these very individuals are objectified by Rice as evidence of the university’s supposed regard for diversity and inclusion.
Over the past year, many students have begun to speak out loudly against the glorification of the University’s founder, calling attention to his racist history and the continued racism of the institution that he represents. Shifa has sat at the statue for more than 140 days; other students and even alumni have joined the effort, both physically and over Zoom. Displaying signs that expose Rice’s racism and call the administration to action, this group has steadily carried on even in face of continued apathy from those on high; and through it all, student artists have added fuel to the group’s efforts through their creative portrayals of the movement and its ideals.
Over the past six months, the movement gained the attention of organizers and news outlets across the city; you can see the articles written about the sit-ins in the Houston Chronicle and Houston Press as well as Rice’s student newspaper, The Thresher, here. But none of them mention the night of October 2, when students who were sitting in didn’t just speak out against the racist past and present of their University, but also spoke out for the potential future(s) that they believed their University could achieve: Black power futures; loving futures; statue-free futures.
Through creative works such as these, students have the freedom to express themselves in any way they choose: to communicate rightful outrage at the disenfranchisement of Black students and other students of color; to reflect on the sense of community and solidarity they share with their peers; and to imagine a future where Rice can actually become a safe, inclusive, and just environment for all its students. Protesting is itself an act of creation: it necessarily involves the ability to imagine a better future for oneself and one’s community and to work to bring that into being, even when that means forging into unknown territory.
Indeed, students at the sit-ins aren’t just calling for change, they are creating it. Even as the statue still stands, the movement for racial justice on campus grows, and it will continue to grow louder until real, tangible efforts are made by the administration that go beyond the creation of another anti-racist focus group. Rice University can’t continue to ignore this movement: not when it is projected on its buildings, plastered on its walls, and written on their prized statue itself with sidewalk chalk.
For more information on William Marsh Rice and to support the movement to remove his statue from our campus, check out our Carrd.
Varun Kataria is a senior computer science major with a passion for film & photography. This is a documentation photo from some projections he created to make the protest and movement more visible on campus.
Serra Sozen is a recent graduate of Rice university who hails from New York. Passionate about civic engagement and mental health advocacy, she hopes to contribute to a more equitable society for all.
Noah Johnson is a senior at Rice University who is passionate about both art and social issues. He is studying physics and sociology and is interested in how visions of the future can help to change the present.
Sarah is a junior from Rice University studying English and Environmental Studies.