As a project dedicated to reckoning with the institutional history of the University of Minnesota, it is necessary for us to not only recognize our location on Dakota land, but to also remember the University’s role in removing Native peoples from Mni Sota Makoce. The beginnings of the University of Minnesota were made possible by Minnesota’s Morrill Act, which provided an endowment to the University of Minnesota in 1868. The University continues to profit from the endowment, and “in fiscal year 2019, the University of Minnesota’s endowment was valued at $2.5 billion.” Quoted in the “Land-grab universities” project, Sharon Stein from University of British Columbia explains succinctly that “There would be no higher education as we know it in the United States without the original and ongoing colonization of Indigenous peoples and lands, just like there would be no United States.”
The Rename Reclaim Working Group is a coalition of students, alumni, faculty, staff, and community members dedicated to reckoning with the institutional history and legacy of racism, anti-semitism, ableism and discrimination at the University of Minnesota. The group was established following the University of Minnesota Board of Regents rejection of the memorandum to rename several buildings on campus in the Spring of 2019.
In collaboration with the Minnesota Higher Education Worker Center and our additional partners, we are advocating for the creation of a public history project that will address current and historic inequities at the University of Minnesota and reckon with its harmful legacies. We also believe we must advocate, support, and collaborate with those already doing this work.
For a successful project we propose active and interdisciplinary engagement with communities on and off-campus, full-time staff members, students, and research assistants. We believe the project should meet the values of Accountability, Autonomy, Community, and Transparency.
We recognize that our current efforts stand on the shoulders of students, scholars, and communities who started the rename reclaim movement. This includes the following, but not exhaustively:
- Dr. Riv-Ellen Prell and Sarah Atwood whose work on the “A Campus Divided” exhibit sparked this movement.
- The Minnesota Student Association who brought forward the resolution on renaming.
- Dr. John Wright and his family who have spent decades fighting for equity and reckoning at the University of Minnesota.
- Dr. Christopher Lehman whose work on the connections of the UMN to slavery has opened many eyes.
- The members of the Former Task Force on Building Names and Institutional History who laid the foundation for continued research, and equitable naming/renaming practices.
- And all of the community members, students, staff, faculty, and organizations whose diverse perspectives, experiences, research, work, and critique which has, and continues to create an environment of equity, transparency, and engagement.
This working group was originally formed by Tala Alfoqaha, Nikil Badey, Laura Leppink, Paige Mitchell, and Chloe Williams, who have each been involved in the reclaim initiative in various capacities. A larger core group was established when we began collaborating with the Minnesota Higher Education Worker Center. We have also partnered and collaborated with different individuals, groups, and organizations throughout our work.
Today, our Working Group continues to be deeply interested in fostering partnerships and building coalitions.
- We aim to secure the funding and backing to fully research, acknowledge, and understand the University of Minnesota’s institutional past.
- We aim to reckon with and move beyond these harmful legacies that continue to be perpetuated today and to lay the foundation for a more equitable, diverse, and welcoming future.
- We aim to uplift historical stories of hope, resilience, and joy in the face of marginalization.
Act Now Core Values
Accountability & Autonomy
We believe that the University of Minnesota needs to be held accountable for its institutional history of racism, anti-semitism, and discrimination. Currently, the retelling of the University of Minnesota’s histories still privileges those in or proximity to structures of power on campus. These narratives obscure the experiences of and harm caused to historically marginalized groups, including, but not limited to, Indigenous, Black, Asian American, Latinx, Chicanx, LGBTQIA+, Immigrant, and disabled communities. The creation of the Rename Reclaim Working Group offers one way to hold the university accountable through advocating for critically engaged public history projects that center and privilege the communities that have been the most affected.
The public history work proposed still exists within the power structures that have created an exclusive historical narrative. Due to this issue we believe that the public history projects supported should have autonomy from undue influence by those with social and economic power such as the President’s Office, the Board of Regents, and Departments or Groups with large financial power. Instead, the projects should seek to have shared authority among researchers, communities, and other stakeholders.
Rename Reclaim remains dedicated to establishing shared authority with the many groups, communities, and individuals over the course of the University of Minnesota’s institutional history. Uplifting and supporting communities is central to our mission of amplifying histories and narratives erased from the University’s mainstream institutional history, and everything we have accomplished has been done through collaboration with a variety of individuals and groups. The Rename Reclaim campaign initially began with a collaborative resolution introduced through the Minnesota Student Association and slowly grew to include support from other student groups, staff, faculty, alumni, and eventually, the President’s Office. The core Rename Reclaim working group has now expanded to include the Minnesota Higher Education Workers Center, and we continue to be deeply interested in fostering partnerships and building coalitions.
In order for the public history work to remain accountable the public history project would be conducted under a community advisory board, which would hold authority over the project in the case of a majority vote.
As we foster relationships with community members and groups, campus stakeholders, and University administration, we would like to maintain our commitment to full transparency and autonomy over the information being produced. This transparency is central to our Cooperative Agreement and would operate on two levels:
- Transparency to the community: This public history project would be conducted under a community advisory board, which would hold authority over the project in the case of a majority vote. The direction of this project would be guided by the priorities of the advisory board, and the information uncovered would be shared by project directors to the advisory board in a periodic and fully transparent manner that allows for open communication and ongoing input.
- Transparency to administration: The process of historical reckoning involves delving into the unsavory past of campus administrations and institutional policies, and we would need to safeguard free access to information against attempts to limit such access while maintaining full transparency about our findings with administrators. Project directors would work closely with various campus constituents to regularly present findings and provide updates on the project when requested. The directors will review material before publication of any kind, and reach out to parties implicated in the research. The parties in question will then have a period of 60 days to craft a response or plan of action. The directors will not and should not limit public access to this information. Rather, this policy allows for the development of relationships between constituencies on campus and can result in more positive media attention.
When the Rename Reclaim Working Group began imagining ways in which to go beyond naming at the University of Minnesota, we initially modelled plans for a multi-year Public History Project on the University of Wisconsin’s Public History Project. However, following the lack of response from the University of Minnesota administration to the submission of our Beyond Naming: Summer Research Initiative proposal, we pivoted our goals to start planning for greater autonomy. Drawing from the organizational models of the Western History Association and the Institute on the Environment we are now working to create a cooperative initiative, with the hopes of partnering with the University of Minnesota. Instead of focusing on a single, time limited public history project, we believe that creating a separate non-profit organization will ultimately allow for more equitable collaboration and research. Placing the efforts of Rename Reclaim outside the power structures of the University will enable the future organization to keep the University accountable to all stakeholders. Yet, through a cooperative model such as the one used by the Western History Association, which would place the leaders in a parallel position in the university, the projects would remain tied to the University community.
Beyond this, by moving away from a single project, we can look to support in house research, but also find ways in which to support those already doing public history work on the institutional history of the University of Minnesota. The Institute on the Environment, housed at the University of Minnesota, offers a good example of what this could look like, fostering interdisciplinary relationships, supporting existing initiatives, while also creating full-time, long term positions for sustained research and development. Overall, we are proposing a model in which the Rename Reclaim Working Group would enter into a cooperative agreement with the University, which in turn allows us to uphold our mission and values.
This model responds directly to the need for more thoughtful, inclusive, and engaged history work. This new model will not only support ongoing efforts to investigate the University’s history, but would fulfill the University’s mission to “change things” and “compel action…by bold example.” In times of intense political and social division, this project compels deliberate, decisive and thoughtful actions that will improve our campus and its surrounding communities.
Currently, the retelling of our history still privileges those who have held power, or those who were in close proximity to structures of power on campus. This narrative negates the experiences of historically marginalized groups, including, but not limited to, our Indigenous, Black, Asian American, Latinx, Chicanx, LGBTQIA+, Immigrant, and disabled communities. The effects of this marginalization and erasure of history continue to influence the ways in which many of these communities navigate our campus and its resources. These students do not feel reflected in this history; they do not feel prioritized. As a premier research institution that seeks to serve, inspire, and empower, we need to do better.
The cooperative work between the future Rename Reclaim organization will provide support for continued dialogue and discussion across campus and the greater Twin Cities communities, creating a more transparent and equitable structure for collaboration. While this project, and other inquiries preceding it, were sparked by the politically contentious question of renaming, ultimately, this project goes beyond naming. It seeks to unite and foster various student, staff, faculty, and community-led initiatives surrounding our institutional history. It allows us to come together. So that “together, we can tell the powerful story of what we do and who we are”.
Why Public History?
The Rename, Reclaim Working Group believes that supporting public history projects is essential in not only representing and researching histories currently left out of the University’s historic narrative, but also in illuminating the ways in which history can teach us how to reckon with harmful legacies, structures, and practices. Public history as a practice, in particular, provides ways to reach and engage with communities. The term “public history,” can be ambiguous, especially in reference to direct and deliberate action. The National Council of Public History provides a thoughtful discussion and definition of the term:
“[P]ublic history describes the many and diverse ways in which history is put to work in the world. In this sense, it is history that is applied to real-world issues. In fact, applied history was a term used synonymously and interchangeably with public history for a number of years. Although public history has gained ascendance in recent years as the preferred nomenclature especially in the academic world, applied history probably remains the more intuitive and self- defining term.”
This definition not only highlights the possible uses of the term, but emphasizes the applied and socially-aware nature of the field. In this way, public history projects are a powerful method for not only exploring the University of Minnesota’s history, but also for fostering publicly-engaged initiatives that can be applied to many of the local and global challenges continuously faced at the University of Minnesota.
Ultimately, leading and supporting public history projects related to the institutional history of the University of Minnesota also supports the University’s commitment to improving the human experience and telling the powerful stories that our experiences generate. If we are to lead by bold example, we must be ready to historicize our current moment and fight against the oppressive narratives perpetuated by our histories.
How can we understand our current crises, and the inequity, racism, ableism, and xenophobia that it preserves, if we as a University have yet to reckon with our inequitable, racist, ableist, and xenophobic past?
Virginia Consortium: Universities Studying Slavery
In these past few years, colleges and universities have become increasingly aware of the impacts and effects that they have had on vulnerable populations in the United States. The uncovering and acknowledgement of this problematic history has been a way for Universities to reckon with their institutional histories and their legacies moving forward. In 2011, Emory University hosted the first-ever conference examining the history and legacy of slavery’s role in higher education. While, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill created a large online exhibition titled Slavery and the Making of the University, which recognized and documented the contributions of slaves to the university during the antebellum period. In April of 2013, Dr. Marcus Martin at the University of Virginia proposed the creation of a commission to further explore the topic and take steps towards reckoning with institutional history. In that process, the formation of the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University organized a multi-institutional collaboration, as part of an effort to facilitate mutual support amongst universities in the pursuit to study common goals on acknowledging their histories and ways to deal with race and inequality in higher education and in university communities. Southern and Northern universities across the United States are part of the consortium, including numerous universities that are not located in the south, however, do deal with institutional histories surrounding racism and discrimination as a building block of their legacies.
Although the University of Minnesota has officially joined this group, there has been no acknowledgment or movement to participate. We would like to foster a better, more involved relationship with the other institutions, people, and communities who are discussing slavery and institutions of higher education.
As statistics continue to roll in, it is obvious that our world is facing an unprecedented public health crisis. Covid-19 has not only exposed humanity to a deadly virus, but has also revealed the ways in which our systems, both internal to the United States and external, have historically failed us and continue to do so. Every day, more and more people face housing insecurity and financial instability, burdened by an economic system that continues to disenfranchise the most vulnerable in our society.
It is important now more than ever that we unite and fight for basic human needs. While some of us might forget this pandemic, or even choose to forget those impacted, history will not forget. The harmed, the persecuted, the abandoned will not forget. The decisions made now will inevitably alter our historical trajectory. We have considered how best to move forward with our proposal for a Public History Project at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. In many ways, we believe that it remains an essential project in not only representing and researching histories left out of the University’s traditional historic narrative, but also in illuminating the ways in which history can teach us how to respond in moments like this. Public history as a practice, in particular, provides ways to reach communities affected by COVID-19 and record their experiences.
Therefore, a Public History Project supports the University’s commitment to improving the human experience and telling the powerful stories that our experiences generate. If we are to lead by bold example, we must be ready to historicize our current moment and fight against the oppressive narratives perpetuated by our histories. How do we understand our current crisis and the inequity, racism, and xenophobia that it preserves if we as a University have yet to reckon with our inequitable, racist, and xenophobic past? Our questions are our greatest answers.
While the Rename, Reclaim Working Group has made considerable strides, the University of Minnesota has largely tabled the discussion surrounding its institutional history. Although COVID-19 has laid bare much of the inequity caused by this history, the University has been vague and noncommittal in its responses. Even when Rename, Reclaim Working Group submitted a Public History Summer Research Initiative proposal on April 29, 2020 the President’s office never engaged in further discussion of the proposal. In the time elapsed since the proposal’s submission, President Gabel presented the new “Systemwide Strategic Plan” to the Board of Regents. One of the actions of the plan’s “Commitment 4: Community & Belonging,” is to “[a]dvance deeper understanding of institutional history.” The President noted the inclusion of the naming policy in this commitment, but remained vague on how the action would be accomplished otherwise. These responses, or lack thereof, prove that now more than ever, the need to continue this type of work.
Our project required the extensive use of literature in the field. Some of the most important sources are considered here. A more in-depth look at the materials we used and considered is available through our online archive.
- Board of Regents Special Meeting April 2019 (April 26, 2019) Meeting Docket:
- The Board of Regents Special Meeting Docket highlights the meeting’s dialogue and reveals succinctly the Board’s opinion on various initiatives surrounding institutional history.
- Report of the Task Force on Building Names and Institutional History (February 25, 2019) and the related small, online archive:
- The Task Force’s Report is a detailed document that highlights the history of four past University of Minnesota administrators; Lotus Coffman, Walter Coffey, Edward E. Nicholson, and William Middlebrook. The report also gives recommendations for possible action and favors renaming.
- University of Minnesota Archives
- The University of Minnesota archives was the main repository used by the Task Force for exploring the University’s past. However, while many of its holdings have yet to be investigated, the materials available are severely limited by the archive’s past collecting processes. For example, information on outside communities affected by University policy is lacking.
- Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “The Case for Reparations.” The Atlantic, June 2014. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/
- Coates’ article is a powerful look at the history of Jim Crow and racist housing policies in the United States. When considering institutional histories, not only are these stories important, but the implementation of reparations can also be an important step in the path to reckoning.
- Mayo Clinic. “Mayo Clinic History & Heritage.”http://history.mayoclinic.org/.
- In the past decade, the Mayo Clinic has made great strides in investigating its history and in documenting previously untold stories. This project resulted in a website that provides a good example for other institutions considering doing this work.
- Report of the Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation (Georgetown University, 2016): http://slavery.georgetown.edu/history/working-group/report/
- Georgetown University has made efforts to reconcile its historical relationship with slavery. A union of students, faculty, and staff resulted in a detailed report with recommendations to Georgetown’s president.
- Ferguson, Roderick. We Demand: The University and Student Protests. Oakland: University of California Press, 2017.
- Ferguson’s book is a useful analysis of the history of student protests in the United States, especially in the post-World War II period. He situates the responses of University administration within a larger framework of anti-intellectualism and weaves together the past, present, and future.
- University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Public History Project.” https://publichistoryproject.wisc.edu/.
- The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s multi-year public history project reveals the possibilities of doing large-scale research and in implementing curriculum surrounding institutional history. Our project has largely relied on the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s project as a model for our proposal.
- Lehman, Christopher P. 2016. “Brought to light: the University of Minnesota’s heritage of slavery”. Hennepin History. 75 (2).
- Lehman’s work is a testament to the importance of investigating Midwestern and Northern ties to slavery. In particular, Lehman’s article highlights the direct connections between Southern slaveholders and early University administrators.
- President’s Office University of Minnesota. “Systemwide Strategic Plan.” Accessed May 12, 2020, https://president.umn.edu/systemwide-strategic-plan.
- Board of Regents May 8, 2020 Meeting. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4XoWE-IHhMc.
- Critical Race and Ethnic Studies Graduate Students (CRES). “Critical Race and Ethnic Studies Graduate Students at the University of Minnesota Statement Regarding COVID-19.” Accessed May 12, 2020, https://docs.google.com/document/d/1dHsufpX9nBDfPE6pLcOcp9DT6BsJu77dJMAjk5nfJ4Y/edit
The University of Minnesota (UMN) received a letter from “a member of the editorial board of the Ramsey County Historical Society. This letter said that the Ramsey County Historical Society had received an article submission by Dr. Christopher Lehman on the contributions of William Aiken Jr to the University,” and “that the editorial board had decided not to publish the article but wanted the University to be aware of it.”
The above was outlined in the October 24, 2016 UMN Senate Governance Social Concerns Committee Meeting Minutes.
Dr. Christopher Lehman (St. Cloud University) speaks before the University of Minnesota Senate Governance Social Concerns Committee on his article “Brought to Light: The University of Minnesota’s heritage of slavery.” The article describes the loan made by slaveholder William Aiken to the University of Minnesota in 1857.
The UMN Social Concerns Committee discusses Dr. Lehman’s presentation and the outlined connections of the UMN to slavery. The committee ultimately closes the discussion with no plans for action on the information.
The UMN Social Concerns Committee addresses an email sent by Dr. Lehman in which he responds to the comments made in the October meeting, including the committee’s dismissal action in light of the information provided. He also references the ongoing database he “created about slaves belonging to Minnesota’s slaveholding investors.”
Opening of the exhibit “A Campus Divided: Progressives, Anticommunists, Racism and Antisemitism at the University of Minnesota 1930-1942.” Curated by Riv-Ellen Prell, Professor Emerita of American Studies, University of Minnesota and Sarah Atwood, Ph.D. candidate in American Studies, University of Minnesota.
The exhibit would be the start of action at all levels at the University of Minnesota.
The purpose of the committee was the following:
- “Examine the process by which buildings are named and statues or other symbols of historical figures are commissioned and dedicated on our campuses;
- Develop a rationale for a process that might involve a change or modification of a property name or a commemorative statue or symbol;
- Propose a process by which such a rationale could be implemented”
“President’s and Provost’s Advisory Committee on University History” releases its official report; advises to make the committee permanent and to amend the Board of Regents Policies on Naming
President’s Office sends a memorandum requesting the service of a selected group of University faculty to serve on the “Task Force on Building Names and Institutional History” (Task Force); advised to report back on recommendations by November 15, 2018
Deadline for Task Force’s report is extended
Task Force delivers final report
- After controversial comments by several regents, audience starts protesting, the Board threatens arrests
- Professor John Wright gives a compelling speech in favor of the report
- Regents vote “no” to renaming; ask for further research
Tala Alfoqaha, Nikil Badey, Laura Leppink, Paige Mitchell, and Chloe Williams meet and form the Rename Reclaim Working Group (Rename Reclaim)
Rename Reclaim meets with Bri Keeney; discuss renaming policy and next steps
Rename, Reclaim begins collaboration/partnership with the collaborating with the Minnesota Higher Education Worker Center
Rename Reclaim meets with President Joan Gabel; present a list of demands, including the creation of a Public History Project at the University of Minnesota
Rename Reclaim begins work on a draft proposal for a Public History Project
Rename Reclaim meets with Kacie Luccini Butcher, Director of the Public History Project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to receive advice on the creation of a Public History Project at the U of M
Rename Reclaim meets with Brianne Keeney and Megan Sweet from President Gabel’s office to discuss the Board of Regents Naming Policy
Rename Reclaim provides detailed suggestions and edits to the policy
Rename Reclaim holds a large meeting with community partners to discuss the Public History Project proposal
Begins conversations with the African & African American Studies Department, the American Studies Department, and the Race, Indigeneity, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Initiative to create a summer research program to support undergraduate research about institutional history at the U of M
May 25, 2020-George Floyd is murdered by police in Minneapolis.
Rename Reclaim continues organizing and works in response to the murder of George Floyd.
Rename Reclaim begins work with University of Minnesota Student Senate
Rename Reclaim continues organizing meetings with activists, student government, and stakeholders.
The Black Student Action Committee comes out with a list of demands, one of which is to “Permanently eradicate the names Coffman, Nicholson, Middlebrook, Coffey and replace it with Black and Indigenous people.”
Rename Reclaim works to draft a Mission, Values, and Project Statement.
This timeline will be updated periodically with new information.