Click here to view or download the final report of the Task Force on Slavery, Segregation, and Racial Injustice.
Dear members of the Rice University community,
In 2019, then-president David Leebron commissioned the Rice University Task Force on Slavery, Segregation, and Racial Injustice. Today, the task force is releasing its final report and recommendations.
This report concludes four years of intensive research, public programming, reflection, and discussion by a committee of dedicated faculty, staff, students, emeritus trustees, and alumni, all assisted by an even larger group of scholars, archivists, administrators, and community members. We have conducted our work during a period of historic change at the university and beyond. What has not changed, though, is the vital mission of research universities like ours: to pursue knowledge freely for the betterment of the world, and to follow evidence wherever it leads—even when new evidence challenges conventional wisdom, and especially when the evidence exposes a university’s own errors.
In the case of the task force, following the evidence has led us to the conclusion that slavery, segregation, and racial injustice were not incidental to the histories of William Marsh Rice and the university he endowed, but part of their very foundations. The process of desegregation, which began half a century after the Rice Institute opened, required changes so fundamental that they amounted to a re-founding of the university. Yet transformation began slowly, even in comparison to other southern universities with similar histories of racial exclusion. Progress since has been hard-won, contested, and incomplete. The second founding began the work of desegregation, but the university has yet to finish that work.
The task force arrived at these understandings over the course of discussions at 29 meetings, including multiple day-long retreats, as well as numerous smaller gatherings of subcommittees and working groups. Before us at each of these meetings was the three-pronged charge given to the task force by President Leebron in 2019. The remainder of this letter summarizes the work we have done to address each part of that charge.
President Leebron’s first charge to the task force was: “Develop and participate in the implementation of a plan for discovering, documenting, acknowledging, and disseminating Rice’s past with respect to slavery, segregation, and racial injustice, as well as an understanding of how that history may continue to inform and shape the present state of the university.”
The task force therefore launched and sustained a multifaceted research effort that included work by members of the task force steering committee; a postdoctoral research fellow; librarians in the Woodson Research Center; students in undergraduate and graduate seminars taught by the co-chairs; and student members of the Racial Geography Project, a research collective led by art history graduate student Adrienne Rooney and art history associate professor, Hanszen magister, and task force member Dr. Fabiola López-Durán.
Between 2020 and 2022, the co-chairs of the task force also hosted a total of 49 one-hour “Doc Talk” webinars on Fridays during the academic year. These webinars offered the community a close look at our archival work in progress and covered documents ranging from the early 1800s to the early 2000s. A team of undergraduate media fellows helped to produce 13 podcast episodes featuring selected audio recordings from the Friday Doc Talks. Each podcast also included recorded follow-up conversations between the co-chairs and invited guests about the documents presented in the episode.
In addition, we have produced three detailed historical narratives for public release. The third and longest of these reports, entitled “Constraints of Race: A History of Rice University and Black Texans from Segregation to Second Founding,” is the one we are releasing today. It includes six chapters, bookended by a prologue and epilogue.
- The Prologue begins with a speech given at the high school commencement for one of the first Black women undergraduates to study at Rice, and it previews the central themes of the whole report: the history and agency of Black Texans, Rice University’s long complicity in anti-Black racism and segregation, and the troubled start of desegregation at the university.
- Chapter 1, “The Louisiana Street Property,” tells the previously untold story of the Rice Institute’s history in Houston’s Fourth Ward, focusing on the property first intended for use as Rice’s campus grounds. In 1923, a never before acknowledged Ku Klux Klan event took place on Rice’s Louisiana Street property, near the home of a Black woman who had previously joined her neighbors in a lawsuit against the institute in 1909. Such stories show that the university’s history with segregation began even before it officially opened, while also pointing to the long history of Black Texans who pushed for full equality in the wake of freedom.
- What was it like, and what did it take, to be Black at Rice? The first to confront those questions were Black pioneers, like the athletic trainer and groundskeeper Jack Shelton, who came to the Rice Institute not for classes but to work. As Chapter 2 shows, Shelton and other workers encountered a campus culture pervaded by racist stereotypes and performances, exemplified by blackface shows and a notorious yearbook photograph of the Ku Klux Klan. But what can we learn about Shelton’s life beyond campus, and what does it tell us about the lived experience of Black Texans who endured Jim Crow segregation while laboring at the university?
- After World War II, amid rising civil rights activism in Texas and nationally, Black Texans directly challenged the segregation of higher education in the state, in the process helping to change some Rice students’ views. Yet as Chapter 3 details, these tentative interactions across the color line also foretold some of the difficulties that the first generations of Black students at Rice would confront when they eventually arrived.
- Chapter 4 highlights the peculiar, halting, and even grudging start of desegregation at Rice University. It examines how trustees’ insistence on delaying integration until after the conclusion of a highly publicized (and, as some at the time argued, a legally unnecessary) lawsuit to change the Rice charter impacted the lives of Black students like Raymond Johnson. In the meantime, white students’ opinions about integration remained divided, as demonstrated by the inauguration, in 1960, of the Hanszen College Minstrel, an annual blackface show at homecoming that repeatedly mocked civil rights struggles well into the 1960s.
- Chapter 5, “A Token Start,” revisits the story of the first Black undergraduate students at Rice in the second half of the 1960s, one of the most polarizing periods in the history of the nation and the university. This chapter explores how and why integration at Rice began in a sluggish and conflicted way, and with what consequences for early Black students such as Linda Faye Williams and Charles Edward Freeman III.
- In Chapter 6, the continuing story of the first Black students at Rice in the decade after integration began reveals how unfinished that process was by 1977. But it also shows how Black students and allied faculty and student groups began to organize for change. The story of the founding and early years of the Black Students Union spotlights that group’s long struggle for recognition and respect; for more secure funding and physical space for Black culture on campus; and for solutions to the persistent dearth of Black faculty at Rice even after desegregation began.
- Finally, in the Epilogue, the story of Velma McAfee Williams underscores how little we still know about crucial aspects of the university’s history, its second founding moment, and its second founders, pointing us to the unfinished work of desegregation today.
“Constraints of Race” should be read as a companion and sequel to two earlier research reports already released by the task force. The first of these reports, “Update on Research about Slavery,” was published in June 2021. It documented in new detail the investments in slavery made by William Marsh Rice and his business partners, including his brother Frederick A. Rice. Drawing on new archival research, the update on slavery corrected a persistent error in accounts of William Marsh Rice’s life that depicted him as a Civil War Unionist, showing instead that he sided with those who sought to pressure Texas’s governor and legislature to respond aggressively to President Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 election, which secessionists viewed as an ominous abolitionist threat to the south’s racial and economic order.
The 2021 report on slavery also documented the names of some of the people whom Rice enslaved or whose enslavement bolstered his business as a wholesale commission merchant, investor, and creditor within the cotton and sugar plantation economy of the Gulf South. Some of these enslaved people, such as Captain and Merinda, were recorded by name in historical documents because of their efforts to escape Rice’s control. Others are known by a name only because they appeared in deeds, probate documents, ledgers, and lists documenting mortgages, contracts, and transfers, including purchases of enslaved people apparently made by Rice Institute charter trustee Frederick A. Rice (then in business with his brother) even during the Civil War.
Our research showed, in short, that William Marsh Rice was not a reluctant Yankee outsider in a slaveholding world, but an enslaver himself who chose to join in the commodification and exploitation of Black men, women, and children for the profit of white families and communities like his. More generally, this research showed why it is impossible to understand how a man like William Marsh Rice could amass an antebellum fortune like his without taking into account the centrality of slavery in the economic development of Houston and its hinterlands.
The “Update on the Founder’s Memorial” was also released in June 2021. Drawing on an extensive review of the university’s archives, the report examined the ideas, intentions, and actions of those who envisioned, built, placed, and dedicated a 1930 memorial to William Marsh Rice in the university’s historic academic quadrangle. Obscuring the role of slavery in the making of Rice’s early Texas fortune was critical to those efforts, which aimed to position Rice (both the man and the university) as symbolic of the postwar reconciliation between white Americans in the north and south.
The statue, its prominent placement, and the ceremonies surrounding it were only the most visible of various attempts in the twentieth century to make veneration of William Marsh Rice as the Founder into a central and permanent part of the curriculum delivered to students at the segregated university he endowed. Yet the wisdom of such veneration has often been subjected to a more critical examination, even during some of the speeches delivered at the statue’s unveiling in 1930, and also during more recent protests and debates surrounding the compatibility between the memorial’s messages and the values of the modern university that the Rice Institute has since become. Convinced that the academic quadrangle needed bold change, the task force concluded this June 2021 report by recommending that the university commission a design competition whose outcome would also determine the final disposition of the statue.
All three of these reports are available online at taskforce.rice.edu, along with links to library pages with some of the archival resources consulted in our research and a complete collection of the Friday Doc Talks from 2020 to 2022. A fuller listing of research efforts undertaken by the task force is provided in an appendix to “Constraints of Race.”
The second part of our charge called on the task force to: “Develop campus wide programming to support frank and honest discussion of Rice’s entanglement with slavery, segregation, and racial injustice, as well as opportunities for community members to envision paths for Rice moving forward. This will include the invitation of speakers to bring to campus to foster dialogue around these issues.”
Since 2019, the task force has hosted 19 featured events, beginning with our first public program (a lecture by Dr. Ruth Simmons, then president of Prairie View A&M University and a Rice trustee emerita) in February 2020 and continuing through our last event (a lecture by Harvard historian Dr. Annette Gordon-Reed) on June 20, 2023. In between these lectures, the task force sponsored public Zoom webinars featuring scholars speaking on a wide range of topics, from the legal battle over changing the Rice charter to the history of segregated medicine in the shaping of American health care. In addition, the task force cosponsored an inaugural research symposium, “Black Houston(s),” whose sessions were held in March 2023 on the Rice University campus and at the Gregory Campus of the Houston Public Library’s African American History Research Center. Finally, we presented several webinars in which current and former Black students and staff discussed their experiences at Rice in the past and the present.
A complete listing of our public programming and a summary of all of our work can be found in an appendix to “Constraints of Race.” Links to recordings of many events are available online at taskforce.rice.edu.
The final charge given to the task force by President Leebron points towards the future: “Identify suggestions for Rice’s future for our students, our faculty and staff, and our relationship with our home community of Houston that will more fully realize our aspirations for a diverse and inclusive university.”
Drawing on our review of the historical research summarized above, on our public programs (including those that spoke directly to issues confronting Rice in the present), and on our frequent and wide-ranging deliberations as a group (which included conversations with current deans, vice presidents, and other key administrators), the task force has developed a list of twelve recommendations for the university. These recommendations, which focus particularly on issues bearing on Black life at and around the university but also widen out to include many other issues, are presented in a special section at the conclusion of “Constraints of Race: A History of Rice University and Black Texans from Segregation to Second Founding.”
Dr. Alexander X. Byrd
Vice Provost for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
Dr. W. Caleb McDaniel
Mary Gibbs Jones Professor of Humanities
Co-Chairs of the Task Force on Slavery, Segregation, and Racial Injustice