Message to the Rice Community - June 16, 2021

Dear members of the Rice University community,

Since starting its work formally in December 2019, the Task Force on Slavery, Segregation and Racial Injustice has launched numerous initiatives to address our three-part charge.

In the past year, we organized 11 lectures and panel discussions on topics ranging from the history of slavery in Texas, to African American culture and politics in Houston in the era of segregation, to the experiences of Black students on Rice University’s campus today.

The task force is investigating a similarly wide range of questions, as demonstrated in 23 “Doc Talks” webinars held during the 2020-2021 academic year. These weekly discussions, often featuring student research, document our developing thinking about historical sources such as a 1922 letter from a Rice donor concerned about the reported presence of the Ku Klux Klan on campus, or a 1990 report compiled by Black students, faculty,\ and staff about the state of Black life at Rice.

Seven of the Doc Talks have been released as podcast episodes; more episodes are in production. In the meantime, all of the Doc Talks have been archived at Fondren Library and are viewable online. Visitors to our website can also find an update on 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. We extend our deepest gratitude to our task force and the many archivists, students, faculty and staff who have devoted time and energy to this work amid all the challenges of a global pandemic.

Much more work remains to be done. Our charge calls for us to investigate an expansive period of time, from the earliest arrival of William Marsh Rice in Texas in 1838 to the state of the university today. Programming and research are now underway on every part of this charge. We have also identified several priority research projects for the coming year. These will include a survey of Black alumni about their experiences at Rice, as well as oral histories with alumni, faculty and staff. Another priority is to document the history of Rice’s past initiatives for the recruitment of Black faculty and students since 1965. Our focus will be on understanding what has worked well and what needs improvement.

The progress updates that we are releasing today focus on only two of the many issues we have considered to date. The first shares our preliminary research findings about slavery. These findings demonstrate, with newly discovered evidence and in greater detail than ever before, significant connections between slavery in Texas and Rice’s earliest founding figures, including William Marsh Rice.

The conclusion reached by most previous scholarship on Rice’s connection to slavery is summarized in a line that was first added in 1996 to the most respected reference work on Texas history: “Though he was a slaveowner with fifteen slaves in 1860 and served on the slave patrol for a year, he identified with the Unionist cause.” Our research to date shows the need for updates to this conventional picture. For example, available evidence shows that Rice did not identify with the Unionist cause. And although a precise accounting may never be possible given the records available, this update presents important new information about the experiences and histories of the people who were enslaved by Rice, as well as his brother and business partner Frederick A. Rice. Our research shows that the Rices’ connections to slavery continued to the end of the Civil War and extended beyond direct ownership.

As a wealthy merchant in the antebellum South, William Marsh Rice was not exceptional in his connections to enslavement, but neither was he exceptionally distanced from slavery, as past scholarship and stories about him have sometimes implied. Slavery was central -- economically, politically and culturally -- to the society in which Rice pursued his first fortune. Merchants and investors such as Rice provided goods, credit and infrastructure to plantation owners and sold cotton and sugar crops, produced by enslaved laborers, into national and international commodities markets. This system and Rice’s participation in it from his 1838 arrival in Texas until the defeat of the Confederacy in 1865 form a crucial context for understanding the war, its aftermath and the deeper historical roots of the university's beginnings as a “whites only” institution in a segregated Houston.

A second update we are releasing today discusses the Academic Quadrangle, which includes the statue of William Marsh Rice, also known as the Founder’s Memorial, and concludes with some recommendations derived from our task force’s conversations about this space. In the coming year, our work will continue to encourage discussion about these and the other subjects related to our charge. We invite the whole community to join those conversations.

Neither of these updates represents the whole of our work. In our first full academic year, we have made the most progress on the first part of our charge (“discovering, documenting, acknowledging and disseminating Rice’s past”) with respect to the first part of our title -- slavery. Research of the kind we are charged to undertake requires significant investments of time, and firm conclusions about the past are impossible to reach until the painstaking job of sifting through all the evidence is complete. Because our research is still in progress, some of the conclusions in this report are provisional and described as such; other conclusions we hold with great confidence. Both kinds of conclusions may require revision over time as our work unfolds.

Of course, much of the work of confronting racial injustice in the present must move on a different timetable than the one set by the demands of archival research. We note with pride and appreciation that the urgent task of identifying ways to make Rice better in the present and future, which is the final part of our charge, is already being taken up by students, faculty, staff, administrators and alumni in a variety of ways. As one of our members put it in a recent task force meeting, the work of ensuring that our university is diverse and inclusive is “forever work” involving everyone. It is part of the work of our task force, but not our work alone.

Central to our specific work is the conviction that a deep and rigorous understanding of the past can help us better achieve our aspirations as a university. From the beginning, the university endowed by William Marsh Rice has been committed to asking difficult questions and advancing knowledge. Today, though not without struggle, we have become a more just, more diverse community with new capacities, new ideals and new questions that demand our best collective thinking. How and to what extent has the university been shaped by its beginnings as a segregated institution? And how was segregation in turn shaped by slavery? Can coming to grips with the histories of slavery and segregation help us to better address the legacies of the past, and keep us from producing or reproducing new forms of racial injustice?

To address such questions, and to lay the foundation for the work we still have to do, we begin at the beginning.

Dr. Alexander X. Byrd
Vice Provost for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Dr. W. Caleb McDaniel
Chair, Department of History

Co-Chairs of the Task Force on Slavery, Segregation, and Racial Injustice