Shortly before noon on a summer Sunday, old Tom Jefferson sat mainly in the sunshine on the east side of Francis Quadrangle. His quill was in his hand, his scroll on his knee. He was apparently drafting the Declaration of Independence.
Just a few steps to the south stood his original tombstone, with a plaque informing that it was a gift to the university from his heirs.
Neither one seemed a likely source of controversy, as children played in the grass nearby and a couple sat on the base of one column. But in this summer of Black Lives Matter, with daily protests here and across the country, a student petition has demanded removal of the sculpture.
The rationale is clear. Jefferson was not only president of the United States but a slaveholder. He was not only a Founding Father but almost certainly the father of six children by one of those slaves, Sally Hemings.
The university’s record on race is also mixed. We didn’t admit our first black student until 1950, and that was only after a lawsuit. Earlier, the institution went so far as to create a new journalism program 30 miles away at Lincoln University in order to avoid admitting blacks to the world’s oldest school of journalism.
On the other hand, the football team risked the wrath of alumni and donors when it took a collective knee in support of black protest in 2015. This year, white coaches, administrators and students have joined minorities in demonstrations.
So far, UM System President and Interim Chancellor Mun Choi and the UM System Board of Curators have resisted demands for removal. I think they’re right. We would come closer to fulfilling our mission of elucidating complex issues by treating this conflict as a teaching opportunity.
At the base of the iconic columns is an explanation of what they are and why they’re important. Something similar would be a valuable companion to the seated Jefferson.
For a model, designers might look a mile or so to the west, where a marker on the MKT Trail recounts the racial tragedy that took place at Stewart and Providence roads in 1923.
There a black MU janitor and World War I veteran named James T. Scott was lynched after being accused of the attempted rape of the 14-year-old daughter of a professor. The lynch mob was egged on by editorials in the Columbia Daily Tribune.
The other side of that story, which isn’t on the marker, is that the professor and a journalism student were the only two whites who tried to stop the murder. In court, the young journalist later identified a former city councilperson as the one who put the rope around Scott’s neck. Still, the jury wouldn’t convict.
So, like Thomas Jefferson, our university and our community have a racial history that should be discussed and debated rather than ignored or stored away.
That discussion and debate could usefully take place in a for-credit course, probably team taught. If there is such a course, it should be required. I don’t know of any current offering that’s as important.
What do you think?
George Kennedy is a former managing editor of the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.