By Lily Jackson
Reckon staff writer
In the coming days, Reckon will take a state-by-state look at how colleges and universities are bracing for a surge of new activism as students, emboldened by the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, force their schools to confront the racism of the past and push for a more inclusive future.
Robert Frazier walked across the field at Atlanta’s Piedmont Park on a dark, rainy February day in 1892 to whistles and screams from an all-white crowd.
Long before Auburn adopted a head-bobbing tiger named Aubie or a well-trained eagle, like Nova or Spirit, the school used Frazier, an African American man called “Dabble” by fans, as its mascot.
On this day, Auburn’s first game in the storied football program’s history, Frazier walked side-by-side with the mascot from the opposing University of Georgia. That mascot, according to lore, was originally intended to be a poor, blind, elderly Black man named Lewis Green, nicknamed Old Tub.
Instead, Georgia brought a goat to serve as its mascot, putting an animal on equal footing with Frazier, a human being and a longtime Auburn employee.
Frazier would work for Auburn for more 25 years, according to historical accounts documented by Research to Preserve African American Stories and Traditions, a research group affiliated with Auburn. In addition to accompanying the team, Frazier was a butcher — one of few jobs that African Americans could perform on college campuses at the time.
Most importantly, Frazier serves as one of the earliest documented episodes in Auburn’s ugly history with race relations over the next century that included racist incidents at fraternity houses and controversial invited speakers.
But in the wake of recent street protests that sprung from the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, America’s colleges and universities are bracing for a wellspring of activism to spill over onto campus this fall. Students, energized by the antiracist movements of the past several months, will return to campus and press higher-education officials to prove Black Lives Matter on campus.
Nowhere is the question sure to be as urgent as in the South, where predominantly white institutions — and some historically Black colleges — erected memorials to young men who fought for the Confederate cause to preserve slavery.
The University of Alabama and Auburn University, two power-house universities with a combined enrollment of more than 65,000 and well-placed alumni and sports fan-bases who wield tremendous influence in government, business and social culture, have already begun fielding pleas to reckon with their racist histories.
“I want to see Auburn University publicly acknowledge its racist history,” said Jediael Fraser, a rising senior at Auburn and advocate for Black and LGBTQ+ students. He joined local protests, he said, when he noticed the national issues had to be localized to see actual change on Auburn’s campus.
In early June, the University of Alabama announced the school would remove three Confederate memorial plaques from the center of campus. Those plaques — originally commemorating UA students who served in the Confederate army and as members of the student cadet corps — were relocated to a “more appropriate historical setting.”
UA assistant history professor Hilary Green told Reckon that despite the historic gesture, the move is just a first step toward grappling with the school’s historical treatment of African Americans.
In 1864, for example, the university spent nearly $6,000 to purchase enslaved Black people. When adjusted for inflation, that is the equivalent of $160,000 in today’s money, according to Green’s research and previous reporting by Reckon.
Green highlights these details in her alternative guided campus tour called the Hallowed Ground.
In early June, UA’s Student Government Association called for “changing the names of campus buildings with racist namesakes.” The namesake of one building, John Tyler Morgan, was a prominent Ku Klux Klan member in Montgomery and former Confederate general. Meanwhile, Garland Hall, a residential building named for a former university president and slave owner Landon Garland also remains.
In response to students’ requests, the university selected a group of trustees to evaluate the names of all campus buildings and structures in the University of Alabama System.
The move comes less than one year after the university established a committee to address diversity after the departure of an outspoken African American administrator. In fall 2019, Jamie Riley, then-UA dean of students, resigned after the conservative news website Breitbart featured Twitter posts from Riley “likening the American flag to a symbol of racism.”
“This present movement has made old history more visible,” Green said. “I think we are going to see more of that. I don’t think things are going to go unquestioned. Universities need to do some soul searching.”
‘They need to do the work’
The same push toward soul searching has made it to Auburn University, where students have coordinated multiple petitions calling for the name changes of Wallace Hall, David Bibb Graves Amphitheater and Comer Hall, all named after former leaders who defended slavery, Jim Crow and racist policies.
“While we all have a lot of questions, it is clear that something has to change, both in society and on our campus,” said Auburn President Jay Gogue on June 5.
Statements like these, although new for mainstream higher education, is just not enough, said Fraser, Auburn student and member of Auburn Students and Community for Change. Fraser said he’s personally disappointed in the responses from the administration.
And Auburn has had to respond to a lot of controversy over the past 10 years. In 2017, notable white supremacist Richard Spencer, paid Auburn $700 to rent space in the school’s James E. Foy Hall. The university attempted to shut the event down but lost the battle in a court decision. A few weeks prior to his arrival, the Auburn White Student Union was formed. The organization was listed as a hate group on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hate Map. And in 2018, racist banners were displayed at fraternity houses ahead of a football game between Auburn and historically Black Alabama State University.
This fall will likely begin a different chapter of the story, though, and Fraser said he doesn’t know what to expect. On June 5, Auburn’s president promised to assemble a task force to “seek meaningful action to confront the pain, fear, systemic racism and injustice faced by the Black community,” according to The Auburn Plainsman, the student newspaper.
In some ways, that work has started with a new joint venture to recognize and address Auburn’s historical ties to slavery and Jim Crow. The Alabama Center for Reparative Justice, a collaboration between Auburn and Tuskegee universities, aims to “make right the wrongs of the past through action in the present and the construction of a better future.” The center hosted a “soft opening” event in mid-June.
From Fraser’s view, African American students should not have to shoulder the burden of racial reconciliation on campuses.
“It’s not about corralling all of the Black students together and asking what we think. Relying on Black students to correct your actions after you get it wrong the first time isn’t right,” he said. “They need to do the work for themselves. They need to educate themselves.”
The Montgomery, Ala.-based Southern Poverty Law Center maintains a list of monuments, buildings and streets associated with Confederate figures.
This story is the second in the series, “University Racism Unraveled.” Click here to read the first piece about students returning to campus in the fall. Stay tuned for more as we continue.
Lily Jackson is a reporter for Reckon. She can be reached on Twitter at @lilygjack or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.