Examining Our Roots | Trinity University
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Examining Our Roots

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Trinity Roots Commission explores racism, inequity, and lack of diversity in University’s history

Content Warning: The end of this article includes photos of blackface and violent, demeaning imagery of indigenous and Native American peoples.

Flipping through a copy of the Mirage yearbook from mid-last century, you’ll see smiling students, faculty, and a booming campus under construction.

You may also find images of students in blackface, a banner calling for the decapitation of a rival team’s Indian mascot, and a campus with practically non-existent diversity.

Trinity cannot celebrate the former as accepted history, while denying the latter is part of the story. And to ensure this part of our story is told fairly, honestly, and transparently, Trinity President Danny Anderson collaborated with Vice President for Academic Affairs Deneese Jones to introduce the Trinity University Roots Commission: a team of Trinity faculty who are examining racism and injustice in the University’s history, specifically the ways chattel slavery comprised the single most valuable asset in the United States and the Texas antebellum economy.  The Roots Commission also aims to reveal examples of selflessness, bravery, and justice in the story of the University’s enduring commitment to diversity and inclusion.

The University has begun to celebrate its 150th anniversary by recognizing the ways we are heirs of our past. The Roots Commission, which was formed last spring, ensures we are stewards of a stronger future by creating the opportunity for difficult-but-important dialogue, says Trinity history professor and Commission member Carey Latimore.

“The Trinity motto says ‘discover, grow, become,’” Latimore says. “And if we can learn from our history, we can keep from making those same mistakes. At some point, I think we can at least learn that blackface isn’t a good thing. But that took people a long time, and I think it took people a long time because of the lack of discovery, engagement, and conversation.”

Anderson agrees that open and transparent exploration is key to our progress on issues of diversity and equity. “Institutions like ours, with a long and rich history, harbor ghosts. Racism is one of the ghosts that is present today. The only way to put those ghosts to rest is to confront them in the tradition of the liberal arts—through critical analyses, self discovery, and commitment to change,” he says. “As we celebrate Black History Month, now is an important time to elevate this work and these conversations.”

Jones offers words of encouragement for the Trinity community as it prepares to engage in this difficult conversation. “We can learn from the mistakes and victories of our past,” she says. “Though sometimes it is difficult to embrace the ugly practices we remember, our past allows us to see some of the lingering vestiges of discrimination and inequities that challenge the excellence that we extol. Past triumphs provide us with encouragement to pursue inclusivity as we appreciate our differences.”

Latimore, along with English professor Claudia Stokes, English professor and Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs Michael Soto, and religion professor Angela Tarango, are still in the process of looking through publications archives, property records, genealogy, and other primary sources to explore this history. But Alli Roman, director for Trinity’s Office for Diversity and Inclusion, cautions against the campus community treating issues of injustice raised by the Roots Commission as existing only in the past.

“When we talk about racism and white supremacy in this country, it’s often in reference to the past—that this is no longer something that we deal with or experience. I can speak as a Black  Latina woman… who was called the N-word in high school, that the effects of racism and white supremacy are not distant memories for a lot of our students,” Roman explains. “Trinity is not in a bubble, and we are not different from other predominantly white institutions grappling with these same issues.”

Tarango, whose work has focused on religion and portrayals of Native American culture, notes that the Roots Commission’s work is not exclusive to one race or ethnicity, nor any specific time period.

“This is not ‘history’ in the sense that it’s ‘dead,’” Tarango says. “Our University is a living organism, and its history is a piece of who it is. So, in order to reconcile with that, and to know who we are as an institution, we have to know what we are. And we have to come to terms with this in a way that is public, and in a way that is useful.”

Part of this answer, Tarango says, is recognizing that Trinity’s history is “very much the history of Texas.” The University had founders who owned slaves and served in the Confederate army. The University was founded on former Native American land, and prioritized and empowered white students for nearly the first century of its existence, to the detriment and exclusion of Black, Latino, and indigenous peoples.

To confront, acknowledge, and grow from this history, members of the Roots Commission and other key stakeholders on campus are urging the Trinity community to use the Commission’s ultimate findings as an opportunity for growth.

Stokes says that the Commission will continue to share its work throughout 2019, because to suppress problematic history only makes these problems worse. “To deny these things happened is an act of violence,” Stokes says. “We would be harming members of our own community.”

Rather than creating trauma, shedding light on past injustice can be an act of healing, Roman adds. “For many of our students, I don’t think they’re going to be surprised to hear about much of this history,” Roman says. “I think they’re going to feel affirmed—we can finally address the elephant in the room.”

And Latimore says there couldn’t be a better time to have this conversation. “In my 15 years on campus, I’ve seen the Trinity community grow more willing to have conversations around race and injustice. This does not look like the same campus as when I started,” Latimore says. “In my classes, I’ve seen so many different groups of people, a broader constituency, willing to engage in these conversations.”

But there remains work to be done. Latimore says the campus must not simply “stifle” uncomfortable conversations, or retreat into separate ideological camps, but rather empower students of all backgrounds to collaborate.

“Our campus thrives when we are ‘discovering, growing, and becoming,’” Latimore says. “But how do we allow ourselves to do this if we’re not discovering our own inner feelings? How do we grow, and become something better?”

Should you have any questions or need someone to talk to about these issues, please contact the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. Director Alli Roman and her peer educators stand ready to help.

Here are some additional resources and Conversation Starters:

  • Research the concept of “being an ally” in the work to eliminate racism.
  • How do you think images like these made people of color feel then, as well as now?
  • Discuss the power of symbols—words, costumes, slurs—to affirm or harm.
  • Discuss how intent and impact differ and why an understanding of the impact on those targeted matters.
  • Consider reading So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo or Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum.  
  • Learn more about the history and origins of blackface.

collage of Mirage yearbook images