By Sukainah Abid-Kons, contributor, with photos by Tristan Lorei, contributor
In leading a protest march Friday that was both silent and loud, JMU students — joined by university employees and community members — called on the university to step up its response to systemic racism, starting with removing the names of confederate leaders from three of its buildings.
“It’s an uphill battle, but we’re ready to fight it,” JMU student Julian Denizard told the crowd of more than 300 participants.
Enduring the sun and 80-degree temperatures, attendees marched silently from Warner Commons to the Spirit Rock on the east part of campus, acknowledging the first silent 8 minutes and 46 seconds as a period of mourning for George Floyd, who died May 25 after a white police officer kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for that length of time.
Students then took turns speaking and signed their name on the Spirit Rock, which had been painted black with “BLACK LIVES MATTER” written in white paint.
“I really feel like black students on JMU’s campus are just a pretty number to put up on their website,” said Julian Denizard, an international affairs major. “They’re not listening to the struggles of black students. They could care less. And that’s the treatment that I’ve gotten for four years on this campus.”
Denizard said he felt compelled to make a statement after JMU President Jonathan Alger issued a statement May 31 in response to George Floyd’s killing — a statement that Denizard considered to be “watered down.” Denizard said the university could create a more welcoming environment for black students by making stronger statements regarding racial injustices and the consequences of systemic racism, such as the killing of George Floyd.
Denizard, speaking in front of the Spirit Rock, also explained why he was carrying a sign that read “ASK ME ABOUT CHALKING.” On the steps of Wilson Hall, Denizard and his friends wrote in chalk the names of black individuals who were killed in police custody. Writing their names served as a protest and a way to honor those who have been killed.
Daerenz Lyons, vice president of JMU’s NAACP chapter who led the march, said that the university could take solid first steps to make the university more inclusive by changing the names of Wilson, Ashby, and Maury halls — also named after confederate leaders — and also by making more diversity classes available for students to take.
“We need to start focusing on pushing JMU to challenge the status quo,” Lyons said.
Denizard also said renaming the buildings is a starting point.
“I think it would be a great first step,” Denizard said.
Some students, faculty, staff and alumni have renewed calls over the last two weeks to rename buildings on campus that are named after confederate leaders. Jackson Hall is named for confederate general Stonewall Jackson, while Ashby Hall is named for a confederate horseman Turner Ashby who served under Jackson. And Maury Hall’s namesake is Matthew Fontaine Maury, a U.S. Navy oceanographer-turned confederate commander who later advocated for creating a new republic in Mexico that allowed slavery.
Wilson Hall, which is named after President Woodrow Wilson, is not among these, but some of the students raised concerns about Wilson’s history of racist comments and policies.
Alger had issued a statement earlier Friday through an email to JMU students, faculty and staff pledging “to address disparities within our community moving forward.” Alger said, for instance, the university would hire in the fall an associate vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion.
While Alger didn’t announce any formal decision about the renaming of Jackson, Ashby and Maury halls, he said a subgroup of a Task Force on Inclusion has researched the history of the namings and requested that JMU students and employees provide feedback about renming through a survey.
That survey is prefaced with a summary of the background of the building’s names in a document called “JMU wants to hear your reflections on the history and context of naming Ashby, Jackson and Maury Halls,” to which Alger included a link from his email. The document provides a brief description of namesakes for each of the buildings, including saying that Maury “is celebrated as a US Naval scientist, specifically, one of the world’s first oceanographers.”
After Friday’s march, Lyons, vice president of the JMU NAACP chapter, said that he was pleased with the high amount of participation.
“I was really surprised by the turnout, especially with the number of students that are gone, and it was really nice to see the community come out and support us and our movement,” Lyons said.
Students have been active in demanding change on campus, with the Madison Center for Civic Engagement Center hosting weekly virtual town halls since June 3 to address the issues of racial injustice and police brutality with students, faculty, staff, and community members.
Just before the march began, Kyel Towler, who is the secretary for the JMU Black Student Alliance, shared both his appreciation for some of JMU’s recent efforts to support student activists and his frustration with other ways the institution has responded.
“It’s time for us to demand our civil rights, not be respectable,” Towler said, “Demand what we want, demand what we need.”
One sign in the crowd declared, “This is a Movement, Not a Moment.”
“Right now is a time for action,” Lyons said, “and our action today is marching.”
Lyons said this wave of protests seems different from those that occurred in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray and after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. “I see a different passion and a different flame in this movement,” he said.
Before those in attendance began their silent march, Lyons told them: “We don’t always have to look at it [black deaths] as a loss, because even though it is a loss in our hearts, we will gain something at the end of the day. We will gain something in fighting for what they stood for, we will gain something by fighting together for their lives.”
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