For UM System President and Interim MU Chancellor Mun Choi, the debate about MU’s Thomas Jefferson statue is settled. The decision to keep the bronze statue on campus is final, he said, a position “the (UM System Board of Curators) felt very strongly about.”
Not surprisingly, others disagree.
In the almost two weeks since Choi and the curators refused to remove the statue despite students’ requests, hardly a day has gone by without incident. The sculpture seated on a bench on Francis Quadrangle has become a point of contention for student activists’ efforts, including frequent social media posts and graffiti near the statue itself.
A red spray painted message — “SAY HER NAME SALLY HEMINGS” — covered the gray concrete Sunday next to the Jefferson statue, documented by MU undergraduate Kirubel Mesfin on Twitter, who has been a verbal critic of the statue and MU’s decision to keep it.
“Mizzou campus facilities is power washing away this powerful message as I write this tweet out,” Mesfin wrote Sunday. “If you don’t know who Sally Hemings is, I suggest doing some homework.”
mizzou campus facilities is power washing away this powerful message as i write this tweet out. if you don’t know who sally hemings is i suggest doing some homework. pic.twitter.com/2w5xoRhqqa— Kirubel Mesfin is angry at Mizzou (@kirubelbmesfin) June 21, 2020
Hemings, who was enslaved by Jefferson and bore several of his children, is one of the major reasons spurring student protests over the statue. MU student Roman Leapheart, who organized a petition to remove the statue, previously told the Missourian he sought justice for Hemings as well as women at MU who are survivors of sexual assault.
In a Twitter thread, Mesfin called on MU to read Hemings’ story and condemned the university’s decision.
“If you want to glorify this rapist and racist by displaying his figure in the middle of campus, just let me know, and I’ll move to a different university,” he wrote. “Don’t worry. It’ll be in the area, so you can be held accountable.”
@Mizzou hi. you normally don't give students the time of day but you just hit the final straw with me. angry Kirubel is not fun but that's your problem to deal with now. i know you won't do your homework on Sally Hemings so I did it for you. (1/10) https://t.co/QYqb23f6oF— Kirubel Mesfin is angry at Mizzou (@kirubelbmesfin) June 21, 2020
On Monday night, officers from the MU Police Department showed up at the house of Sebastián Martínez Valdivia and asked to interview him. He matched the description of the person who had defaced the statue, officers said, according to a tweet from Kellie Stanfield, an MU assistant professor of journalism who lives with Martínez Valdivia.
In an interview with the Missourian, Martínez Valdivia said he was asked by police where he was at 3:30 a.m. Sunday.
Officers presented him with printed-out copies of his tweets criticizing the university’s decision, Martínez Valdivia said, remarking it was “suspicious” that he mentioned Hemings in his criticism, though many protesting the statue have also invoked her name in their posts.
I was really worried they had finally gotten me for streaming a soccer game at work, but instead it's because I tweeted I felt entitled call the university, "on its bullshit." It was funny to hear that quoted back to me, and to see print outs of my tweets in a dossier lol. https://t.co/g8LdEL773c— Sebastián Martínez Valdivia (@sebastiansings) June 22, 2020
Martínez Valdivia is a health reporter for KBIA, Columbia’s NPR affiliate station and one of the MU School of Journalism’s newsrooms, as well as an adjunct professor of journalism. He said he was not the one behind the incident.
MU Police could not release details on whether officers had made similar visits or if any arrests had been made because the case remains under investigation, spokesperson Sara Diedrich said Tuesday.
In the days after Choi and the board’s initial decision, a number of students and alumni wrote emails directly to the interim chancellor and the board expressing disagreement. Many used an email template created for the purpose.
Last week, Jenna Roy, Choi’s executive assistant and university events liaison, sent a response affirming Choi’s statement that the university will “fully place the legacy of Thomas Jefferson into context.” What that contextualizing will entail has not yet been announced.
Roy’s emailed response resulted in a flurry of new posts; many posted screenshots of the response to Twitter criticizing it, and others created Instagram posts about the issue that were shared among students and alumni.
One student filed a Title IX report in response to the university’s refusal to remove the statue. Beck Jaeckels, who last week defended her thesis in her final stretch as a student, said she filed the report both as a survivor of sexual assault and as an advocate for Black students.
“It was the way in which I could use my personal experience as well as my privilege,” Jaeckels, who works as a copy editor for the Missourian, said.
Last Friday, on the same day Choi called the decision “final,” he responded to a Black student’s email regarding the statue. His response sent directly from his email address, was brief, according to a screenshot shared by a student on Twitter.
“Thank you for sharing your perspective,” Choi wrote. “I made this decision in the best interest of the university. Jefferson’s contribution to this country and the world was seminal and should be celebrated.”
That response, sent on Juneteenth, prompted further criticism toward Choi.
This is despicable. To reply to a Black student, ON JUNETEENTH, with zero cultural humility or competency. Don’t let @Munychoi4545 being Asian fool you on his complicity to anti-Blackness. Personally, all I get from him is that he’s a power-hungry, social climber. pic.twitter.com/gBdIgVdpVo— Poonita (@winniedapoonita) June 19, 2020
The university’s social media campaign that same day came under fire from students and alumni, ringing hollow for those who viewed the decision to keep the statue as racist.
“How you celebrating the end of slavery with a slave master sitting on the quad and buildings and streets named after slave owners?” read one response. Another said, “On the quad sits a statue of Thomas Jefferson, a man who owned slaves.” Others called the campaign performative and hypocritical.
Today #Mizzou celebrates #Juneteenth, the national commemoration of the ending of slavery in the U.S. Originating in Galveston, Texas, in 1865, it marks the date Union soldiers landed and shared the news that enslaved people were now free. https://t.co/GSEkDW80Bj— Mizzou (@Mizzou) June 19, 2020
The story’s opening paragraphs detail the experience of rising MU junior Lourdes Torrey, who called the university’s statement on George Floyd performative and “disingenuous.” Torrey said that when she enrolled, she hoped campus climate around race had changed since 2015 but said students’ nearly five-year-old demands still had yet to be met.