An account of the Racial Reconciliation Commission’s monthly meeting on Feb. 27

Gano Chapel, Quad, Jewell Campus. Courtesy of Catherine Dema.

On Feb. 27, Rodney Smith, vice president for access and engagement and chair of the Racial Reconciliation Commission (RRC), led the RRC’s monthly meeting. This meeting was open to all members of the Jewell community. The objective of this meeting was to brief RRC members and other interested parties on the RRC’s progress in terms of its implementation of certain initiatives introduced on Nov. 10. Specifically, Smith discussed feedback provided by the faculty on these initiatives. The RRC has plans to meet with other groups to receive feedback, including Student Senate and the alumni of color advisory group. To date, the RRC has presented their initiatives to the administrative council, the alumni board of governors, and faculty council. 

Briefly, these initiatives are: 1) addressing historical inaccuracy; 2) commemoration; 3) repair and restoration and 4) creating a better future. The RRC’s implementation of these initiatives is guided by the following principles: 1) collaboration; 2) transparency; 3) continuous learning and 4) intentional representation.

RRC members in attendance included: Mark Mathes, an alumnus of William Jewell College; Cecilia Robinson, professor emerita of English and historian of Clay County African American Legacy, Inc.; Andrew Pratt, dean emeritus of the chapel; Robert Powers, electronic resources and archives librarian; David Sallee, former president of Jewell; Clark Morris, vice president for advancement and head of the Harriman-Jewell series; Keith Pence, member of the Board of Trustees; Carmaletta Williams, executive director of Mid-America Black Archives; Donna Gardner, professor emerita of education and Owen Kerrigan, freshman political science major. Kerrigan was announced as the newest member of the RRC at this meeting.

Members of the Jewell community present – apart from the Hilltop Monitor – were Rebecca Hamlett, director of library services and Traci Parker-Gray, director of diversity of equity, access and engagement. 

Two major recommendations made by faculty were discussed at the meeting. An additional consideration concerned renaming rooms is raised in conjunction with faculty’s first recommendation.

On faculty’s first recommendation
The first concerned the proposal to rename the RRC the “Katherine ‘Aunt Kitty’ Thompson Alexander Project.” Katherine Thompson Alexander was a Black woman who was employed as a cook by the William Jewell College Boarding Club for 25 years during the nineteenth century. Some faculty members proposed that the nickname ‘Aunt Kitty’ be removed from the consideration in the new name for the RRC, as terms of endearment and nicknames were often used by white people in power to infantilize or otherwise demean people of color under their employ.  This is because these terms of endearment or nicknames often reinforce negative racial stereotypes, such as the figure of the black mammy

The recommendation was discussed by RRC members. Robinson noted that Alexander seemed to embrace her role as ‘aunt’ at the College. Further, she argued that an instance where Alexander loaned 50 cents to a Jewell student indicated that she was economically independent and therefore less subject to infantilizing treatment. However, Pence noted that – whatever the connotations of the name ‘Aunt Kitty’ – the new name would be seen by members of the broader Kansas City and Liberty community. Most likely, these individuals will not know Alexander’s story. Without this important historical context, the name ‘Aunt Kitty’ by itself could reinforce negative racial stereotypes.

After this discussion, Smith concluded that ‘Aunt Kitty’ should be removed. Robinson asked whether the RRC members present would be voting on this decision. Smith asked the RRC members present whether a vote should be conducted, to which Powers responded by asking all commissioners in favor of changing the proposal to rename the RRC to raise their hands. Then the commission members clarified that they were voting to remove ‘aunt’ from ‘Aunt Kitty,’ though Smith stated that he would entertain a motion to remove ‘Aunt Kitty’ entirely from the renaming proposal. No such motion was started and the commission members voted unanimously to remove ‘aunt’ from the Katherine ‘Aunt Kitty’ Alexander Project. 

Smith then clarified that these initiatives were just recommendations, meaning that the vote did not officially change the RRC’s name until the Board of Trustees approved the recommendation. However, this spurred some discussion as to the exact role of the Board of Trustees in the RRC’s recommendations. Pence argued that the Board of Trustees had not named the RRC to begin with; whoever had originally come up with the name should decide whether or not to approve the recommendation to rename the RRC. Smith stated that the RRC’s name was decided by himself and Elizabeth Macleod Walls, president of the College. However, Smith reasserted that he was going to present all these recommendations to the Board of Trustees. 

An additional consideration: Who renames what?
Smith also noted that the original slide wherein recommendations under the heading of ‘Commemoration’ were listed had misspelled Audrey Burchette’s name. The RRC had recommended that the Alexander Doniphan room in Brown Hall be renamed in her honor in this slide.

There was some confusion, however, as to whether this recommendation had already been brought to the Board of Trustees. Afterall, in official communications such as the View From the Hill, the room is referred to as the Audrey Burchette room. However, Smith stated this had been done only unofficially; that is to say, the room had been referred to as the Audrey Burchette room only in verbal, not written communications. According to Smith, this recommendation had to be presented to the Board before it was made official.

However, Pence stated that it was his belief that the Board does not get involved in the process of renaming rooms, as this was an operational affair outside of the Board’s scope. The Board’s task is to set direction. Instead, he suggested that whatever part of the College applies names to rooms would be the group to receive the recommendation. 

Mathes disagreed with Pence. He asserted that it was “critically important, even if the Board of Trustees does not see naming rooms as part of what they do, [that] the Board of Trustees has to stand up and say we recognize all of this and put it on a vote.” Mathes underscored the importance of ownership: the outcome of the vote and who voted for and against what should be made public. 

In an attempt to sort out these confusions, Morris recommended that Macleod Walls and the Board of Trustees should ‘ferry out’ who should have what responsibilities in connection with the RRC’s initiatives and recommendations. In his mind, he believed that all these recommendations should be presented to Macleod Walls, who would then decide which of these recommendations should be voted on by the Board. 

Further, Pratt reminded the other commission members that the purpose of this meeting was for Smith to brief those present on faculty feedback to the RRC. He stated that he “had not come prepared to vote on every recommendation,” although he thought this was a good idea. Pratt added that votes should be scheduled to give commission members time to prepare. 

Gardner agreed with Pratt in terms of the importance of voting and also hearing feedback from various groups. However, she urged that it was crucial that the RRC vote “in the most timely fashion possible.” Further, the RRC should clarify the process by which these votes occur. This includes clarifying who approves what recommendations and how. 

On the Faculty’s Second Recommendation
Gardner’s comments put the commission in a position to discuss the faculty’s second major recommendation to the RRC: the importance of a transparent, formal decision-making procedure. 

Kerrigan suggested the following structure for the implementation of the RRC’s recommendations and initiatives. First, feedback should be gathered from as many relevant groups as possible. Then the commissioners would vote on issues as they arose from the feedback. A list of recommendations would be compiled from these votes, which would then be presented to Macleod Walls. Macleod Walls would then decide which recommendations required Board approval and which did not. Smith approved this structure. 

This spurred a discussion as to what groups should be asked to provide feedback and how. Kerrigan noted that Student Senate has plans to have a town hall on the RRC’s initiatives – this would give the general student body an opportunity to provide feedback to the RRC. Kerrigan was unsure of the timeline of this town hall at the time of the meeting, though he promised to talk to the relevant parties to ascertain this information. 

Robinson then listed the recommendations which required feedback and subsequent approval from Macleod Walls: 1) the RRC’s statement of purpose must be approved; 2) the proposal to rename the RRC; 3) the proposal to rename the Doniphan room; 4) the proposal to rename Jewell Hall and 5) the proposal to develop a Freedom Walk on the Quad. Robinson, alongside Parker-Gray, underscored the importance of giving Black Student Alliance (BSA) the opportunity to give feedback on these recommendations. 

Smith noted that, because the Board of Trustees meets just three times a year, it would be difficult to have a completed list of recommendations by the time the Board meets again. Thus, it would likely be the case that this process of getting feedback, voting, and then getting Board approval would have to wait to be completed until the Board’s October meeting. 

Hamlett then returned the conversation to faculty’s feedback concerning the RRC’s procedures. Hamlett stated that faculty wanted to understand how feedback would be gathered and synthesized and, finally, how this feedback would be presented to the administration. Hamlett asked whether it might be possible for the RRC’s presentation, first shown on Nov. 10, to be publicized so that the faculty could have the opportunity to provide ample, carefully considered feedback. 

Powers added that faculty cited that faculty groups have particular by-laws that govern their operations. The faculty wanted to know whether the RRC has any such by-laws, how votes are conducted, whether there are minutes for the RRC’s meetings and how these are published, and other such procedural matters. In response, Mathes asked whether faculty “understand that this isn’t a faculty meeting or commission, and what comes out of it is more important than the governance of a committee.” 

Pratt concurred with Mathes, stating that “faculty committees are standing committees that continue their work year after year, with different people rotating on and off the committees. And so it’s for continuity’s sake… [thus] it’s more important in those cases to have established procedures, so that the committee can continue to function… There’s never been a Racial Reconciliation Commission before and it may be that the Racial Reconciliation Commission persists once this first round of work is done, then I think it will be important to do those things. But in a sense, I think that it’s not applicable: those types of comments are not applicable to this kind of commission, although… it’s important to have the votes and the records and be transparent.”

Smith ended by stating that he is willing to post the RRC’s materials online, as well as the RRC’s meeting minutes, and calendar dates for meetings with stakeholder groups. The Hilltop Monitor will continue reporting on the RRC’s progress with respect to its initiatives and recommendations. 

Agatha Echenique

Agatha Echenique is the Chief Editor for The Hilltop Monitor. He is a senior majoring in Oxbridge: History of Ideas and Philosophy. This is his third year on staff.

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