A Redemptive Model of Labor: Documenting student activism at Middle Tennessee State

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Editors’ Note: This is one post in a series of posts about the intersection of archives and public history that will be published throughout October, or Archives Month in the United States. This series is edited by National Council on Public History (NCPH) board member Krista McCracken, [email protected] affiliate editor Kristin O’Brassill-Kulfan, and NCPH The Public Historian co-editor/Digital Media Editor Nicole Belolan.

In 2015, graduate student Sarah Calise put rapid response archiving theory to practice by capturing student-organized events, social media posts, news articles, position statements and letters, and other materials demanding the removal of the name “Forrest Hall” from the ROTC building at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU). [1] What began as her graduate project at the Albert Gore Research Center became the Forrest Hall Protest Collection, an ongoing documenting project that demonstrated the current protest movement was part of a long history of student protests against the official university adoption of Confederate iconography.

In this color photograph, students (mostly African American but also white) are pictured marching with signs in the street. Brick buildings and trees are in the background. The students are carrying signs (illegible).

Led by Brandon Woodruff, front right, students marched across MTSU’s campus from the location of the third public forum to President Sidney A. McPhee’s home, March 24, 2016. Photo credit: Lauren Frederick.

 

When this project was mentioned in Dr. Elizabeth Catte’s 2015 [email protected]post, “A Confederate on Campus: The Case of MTSU’s Forrest Hall,” neither Sarah nor Donna Baker, her supervisor, knew exactly what the project would ultimately look like. What was once a student digital project became a reckoning in the archives as well as a mission of redemption work for a university community.[2]

One might think that the university administration has the power to remove or change the name of any of their buildings, but the state’s 2013 Tennessee Heritage Protection Act prohibits the removal of any memorial placed on public property without the permission of the Tennessee Historical Commission. Should an organization wish to rename a school, building, or park, or if an organization wants to remove or relocate a statue or marker, that organization must petition the Tennessee Historical Commission for a waiver of exemption first.  The full name of the building in question on Middle Tennessee State University’s campus is Nathan Bedford Forrest Hall, named to honor the Confederate general, a key figure in the 1864 Fort Pillow Massacre and inextricably linked with the founding of the Ku Klux Klan. The commemorative nature of the name meant that Middle Tennessee State University would have to petition the Tennessee Historical Commission for a waiver in order to change the name of Forrest Hall. As students continued to protest the name as a physical representation of systemic racism, the administration assigned a task force to explore the issue. The task force held public forums and solicited position papers to determine the final recommendation to give the administration regarding the name. One of the entries in the Forrest Hall Protest Collection includes a news article from the student newspaper “MTSU names fifteen-member task force to determine the fate of ‘Forrest Hall’” which analyzes the members of the task force and its mission.[3] After a long process, the Tennessee Historical Commission denied Middle Tennessee State University’s petition for a waiver. The name “Forrest Hall” would stay.

In this color photograph, four African American students holding signs with messages on them such as "Black Lives Matter" are sitting and standing. There is a building in the background labeled "ARMY ROTC/FORREST HALL."

Students held a silent protest outside Forrest Hall on October 4, 2016. Photo credit: Sarah Calise.

 

The Forrest Hall Protest Collection

Sarah created the Forrest Hall Protest Collection as a digital collection. The main reason for this is that she is a public historian in the twenty-first century wanting to utilize modern tools and platforms for a contemporary user population. The student activists use communication strategies that are digital, so it is only logical that the collection structure would reflect that. The introduction on the landing page of the Forrest Hall Protest Collection, found in the Digital Collections at Walker Library at MTSU, describes the collection with the following paragraph:

The Forrest Hall Protest Collection exists in order to collect, preserve, and provide access to the documents, accounts, and history of the individuals and organizations involved in the debate over the name of Forrest Hall and other Confederate symbols on MTSU’s campus. Albert Gore Research Center has a strong presence in the Middle Tennessee region, and has an obligation to the students, the local community, and future scholarship to document the current events on campus in their connection to the university’s history. The repository is important for institutional memory, student movements, history of discrimination in institutions, civil rights history and memory, and Lost Cause memory.

Although the ultimate goal of the most recent student protest movement did not succeed, and there is a current lull in protest activities on campus, we still upload items to the collection. Currently, there are 450-plus items including photographs, video, social media posts, newspaper articles, position papers, and images from yearbooks. Still, it felt like there was more archives work to be done.

Rapid Response Archiving to Community/Redemptive Work

Both of us can point to one moment where the rapid response archives approach to the project changed to a community/redemptive archives project. This happened during the extraordinarily hostile third public forum where position statements would be entered (but, in a strange twist of proceedings, not read aloud) into the record. While vocal and present at all the forums, that night student Brandon Woodruff made an impassioned speech from the floor about his pain as an African American student having to pass a building named for a Confederate general. Woodruff ended his speech by scolding the taskforce, as well as the Lost Cause proponents in the audience, who in essence forced students to ask for permission to remove this deeply offensive name from people far removed from the daily life of MTSU. From that moment, the drive to embrace the phrase “Archives are not neutral” as standard practice at the Albert Gore Research Center could not be halted.

While Sarah developed the Forrest Hall Protest Collection, first as a student then as the archivist for Political and Regional Collections at the Gore Center, community outreach ideas were percolating. We both considered issuing a call for collections and oral history projects for an upcoming anniversary of the founding of the Black Student Union. We also knew we needed to engage in a robust document strategy project in order to fill the gaps in our collections—gaps we knew existed before the most recent student movement took place but were painfully obvious in the aftermath. The shared thoughts and concerns led to a truly inspired project: Movement 68.

Giving a Voice to the Past with Movement 68

The Lost Cause narrative is a dominating force in Murfreesboro. The public square—a site for farmers markets, jazz festivals, LGBT+ Pride, and more—is literally overshadowed by a large Confederate monument. On those same grounds sits the county’s courthouse that features a commemorative plaque to Nathan Bedford Forrest. Thus, it was not really shocking to see a strong showing of local community support for Forrest Hall in articles and comments, but the hostility and racism those community members directed toward MTSU’s students during the three public forums held on campus was vile and unacceptable.

As two white archivists, we built the Forrest Hall Protest Collection to demonstrate instances of white supremacy in Middle Tennessee State University “town and gown,” both in Murfreesboro’s and the university’s past and present. Movement 68, however, was about building a platform in which MTSU’s black student activists could speak truth to power without being interrupted by racist white people as they had during the more recent public forums and which had generally been the case for far too long. Sarah developed the major program goals and activities as well as built or rebuilt relationships with black students and alumni. Donna acted as the administrative support person, picking up tasks or helping to alleviate any challenges so Sarah could focus on creating Movement 68.

Movement 68, a concept partially influenced by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission at the end of apartheid in South Africa, would not have been possible without the support of the intergenerational black student community. Sarah reached out to Sylvester Brooks, the person who first started protests against MTSU’s Confederate symbols back in 1968. He agreed to return to MTSU to tell his story on the 50th anniversary of when he wrote a contested column in the student newspaper titled, “Dixie: What Does It Mean?” Over the next few months, Sarah worked on two significant tasks that directly related back to the lessons learned during the creation of the Forrest Hall Protest Collection.  First, she began to reach out to alumni willing to participate in oral history interviews. Although Sylvester Brooks had been interviewed in 2000, many of MTSU’s black student leaders had been approached to participate in the oral history program but had declined due to a lack of trust. She began to gain the trust of our alumni, and was able to conduct several interviews. Second, she planned a symposium formed from a panel of black students from the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, and the present day who wanted to speak about their own experiences with the Confederacy on campus. Brooks was joined by Dr. Phyllis Hickerson-Washington, Dr. Michael McDonald, Dr. Vincent Windrow, André Canty, and Arionna White.

The Movement 68 Symposium was held on October 23, 2018, and began with a riveting keynote address from archivist Lae’l Hughes-Watkins, founder of Project STAND (Student Activism Now Documented). For an hour and a half, the panel of former black student activists discussed their trials and triumphs at MTSU, and what it means to still have Confederate symbols on campus 50 years after the first calls to take them down. Moderated by Sarah and by Barbara Scales, director of MTSU’s June Anderson Women’s Center, panelists could address questions regarding their specific protest activities and accomplishments, or touch on more general questions about how much MTSU or the United States progressed since their college years. Toward the end of the symposium, a young audience member asked Brooks how current students should counteract racism on campus and in the community. Brooks stated, “It’s your time . . . it’s time for you to stand because others have stood before you . . . We have to say this is unacceptable and then act on that.” [4]

In this color photograph, nine people are standing in front of a projector screen and a table with microphones and water. The individual at far left in white. The others are African American.

Participants in the Movement 68 Symposium, from left to right: Sarah Calise (moderator), André Canty, Arionna White, Sylvester Brooks, Dr. Michael McDonald, Dr. Phyllis Hickerson-Washington, Dr. Vincent Windrow, Lae’l Hughes-Watkins (keynote), and Barbara Scales (moderator).

 

Going forward, we will use Movement 68’s lessons to be more inclusive in our collecting, in our teaching, and in our interpretation of the archives. As Sylvester Brooks says, “Silence is more deadly than anything else.” This is true in social justice, and it is true in the archives. It is our redemptive model of labor to actively fill the silences that have existed in the archive for decades.[5] The Albert Gore Research Center has a long way to go, but with constant self-evaluation, education, and action the archive can reconcile with its past and history of its university to truly become a space for activism and a space for all.

~Sarah Calise is the Political and Regional Collections Archivist at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

~Donna J. Baker is the University Archivist at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

[1] For more information on rapid response archiving, please see the National Council on Public History [email protected]blog series “Rapid Response,” https://ncph.org/history-at-work/tag/tph-rapid-response/. Accessed 19 September 2019.

[2] We are using the term “redemption” in the spirit of archives power, as described by Randall C. Jimerson. Redemption requires recognition that archives are not, and never have been, neutral. For more, see Jimerson’s Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice (2009) and “Archivists and Social Responsibility: A Response to Mark Greene,” The American Archivist 76, no. 2, Fall/Winter 2013): 302-334.

[3] “MTSU names a fifteen-member task force to determine the fate of ‘Forrest Hall,’” Sidelines. Forrest Hall Protest Collection, http://digital.mtsu.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15838coll11/id/414/rec/132 Accessed 19 September 2019.

[4] Sylvester Brooks makes this statement during the symposium at 1:50:46. You may view the video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n4-o9_AEX1w&feature=youtu.be. Closed captioned.

[5] We would like to thank a few archivists and information professionals who inspired our work on both the Forrest Hall Protest Collection and Movement 68. These people include (in alphabetical order): Michelle Caswell, Marika Cifor, Jarrett M. Drake, Dr. Meredith Evans, Helen Wong Smith, and Lydia Tang.

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