University of Texas’s Racial Geography Tour: A Review

Washington Statue in front of UT Tower, Austin TX (Flickr/sbmeaper1)

In the process of reconciling the history of institutional racism, colleges and universities have turned to race-cognizant tours to acknowledge a more truthful and complete narrative of their past and to educate campus stakeholders. Whether the Black and Blue tour at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill or the Hallowed Grounds tour at the University of Alabama, these alternate campus tours have been instrumental in rendering visible previously invisible histories embedded in the built landscape but not covered in official public narratives. These tours have shifted how campus visitors and stakeholders engage with the institutional history and built landscape, and in turn, have played a significant role in the ongoing process of reconciliation and repair.

A recent addition, the virtual Racial Geography Tour, explores the complex history of race and gender at the University of Texas’s flagship campus. Developed and narrated by Dr. Edmund Gordon, associate professor of African and African Diaspora Studies and Vice Provost for Diversity, the interactive tour reveals “how ideas of race and gender are sedimented in the architecture, landscape, and layout of the campus.” The tour also highlights the role of protest and student activism in shaping the process of revision and reimagination embodied in present-day design aesthetics, institutional values, and campus demographics. The past and present remain in constant dialogue through the video narration at each tour stop, and through the supplementary materials tucked into the information panel. This virtual tool is an effective digital humanities teaching tool for understanding race, gender, and campus history in an interactive, multidisciplinary, and multi-dimensional experience.

Simply organized, the site is easy for users to navigate. The “Introduction” tab is a crucial first step in shaping the user experience. Located in the top right corner of the main landing page, a pop-up window opens, allowing users to watch a short video that lays out the guiding principles of the project. Below the video is a brief explanation of how to access interpretive essays , historical photographs, multimedia, and other supplementary materials once users begin the tour. This page also includes links to a bibliography and acknowledgements for the project.

After this brief introduction, users must close the pop-up window (top-right corner) to access the eighteen tour stops. This can be accomplished either through the drop down “Tour Stops” section in the middle of the header or through the map “pinpoint” icon on the far right. Users can access the tour content in any order and can determine their own path beyond the suggested order provided by Gordon and the project team. Users can easily return to any section at any time for further reflection. Regardless of the route, users will find rich content grounded in archival sources but presented in accessible language that seeks to impart historical understanding in order to develop solutions to ongoing campus issues surrounding diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Each tour stop includes the following: a clear but brief summary of the site of memory, with detailed information (detailed images or documents); a bibliography for the sources used in the accompanying materials; and a transcript of the accompanying video. The informational panel, bibliography, and transcript are available as expansive sections when users click on the plus (+) sign. Overall, the layout is clear, visually appealing, and allows for the user to engage with the content at their own pace and revisit for further inquiry or reflection.

The various Racial Geography Tour stops reveal the diverse ways that race and gender have shaped the entire campus landscape. Problematic building namesakes reveal how donors, faculty, and alumni played a significant role in the development of the campus. The Littlefield Mansion stop, for instance, discusses how the legacy of slavery and the Confederacy contributed to the wealth of an early University of Texas (UT) donor and allowed him to play a major role in shaping the campus’s origins and landscape design. Other tour stops shed light on the Lost Cause proponents, segregationists, and Klansmen who are commemorated in the built landscape. Painter Hall, for example, mentions that UT President Theophilus Painter was the defendant in the 1950 U.S. Supreme Court case Sweatt v. Painter. The court ruled that UT’s racially segregated law schools were unequal and ordered them to admit Herman Sweatt as the first African American to attend the UT School of Law. Beyond problematic building namesakes, several stops also reveal UT’s complex racial past beyond a Black-white binary. The information panel of the Perry-Casteñeda Library (PCL) and Alumni Center tour stop, for instance, explores the history of George Sánchez, Américo Paredes, and the development of the Latinx Studies program at UT, showcasing a useful timeline of Latinx “firsts” at the university.

The Women’s Campus and Gearing Hall stops shed light on the experiences of women students at UT, with a special attention to African American women students during desegregation. The bibliography for the Women’s Campus stop provides Sherryl Griffin Bozeman’s firsthand recollection of her experiences as a student activist who helped desegregate UT. The Gearing Hall stop offers a discussion of the coeducational experience of white women before desegregation, the important administrator who serves as the building namesake, and the gendered educational experience. These two stops complement the information at Simkins and Creekside Residence Halls, which describes the importance of Almetrus Marsh Duren, a dormitory housemother and academic advisor who mentored Black students for decades. The stories of these African American pioneers is presented alongside the sobering history of Simkins Hall, dedicated five weeks after Brown v. Board of Education (1954) to the former Confederate soldier, longtime UT law professor, and former Grand Dragon of the Florida Ku Klux Klan, William Simkins.

The complex history of the South Mall and its buildings, plaza design, and statuary are meticulously detailed over several tour stops. Created during the height of Lost Cause commemoration, the South Plaza embodied the “Neo-Confederate University.” As revealed in the various tour stops, the space served as the home of the now removed white supremacist statuary and traditions—such as flying Confederate flags or singing “The Eyes of Texas” school song— whose history is presented over five tour stops. Moreover, these detailed entries educated users on how protest and ongoing student activism contributed to the rejection of the Neo-Confederate University. The Robert Lee Moore and Jim Bob Moffett buildings stop allows tour participants to dive into the politics of renaming buildings to reflect the post-desegregation diversity of UT students, faculty, and staff as well as the institution’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Their activism facilitated the significant revision of campus culture, spaces, and the built landscape, transforming the campus into a more inclusive space.

While easy to navigate through the rich self-guided content, the embedded videos and other multimedia content require significant bandwidth. Users might experience slow downloads depending on their internet and cellular Wi-Fi network speeds. Also the bibliography could benefit from a clearer differentiation between primary and secondary sources to add to user experience and increase the website’s utility as an educational tool for K-12 and collegiate communities.

Overall, the Racial Geography Tour succeeds in showcasing the complex campus history as an interactive experience. It serves as a model for other campuses and communities seeking to make visible complex racial pasts that will allow for shaping ongoing conversations and reform efforts.

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Hilary Green

Hilary N. Green is an Associate Professor of History in the Department of Gender and Race Studies and serves as the co-program director of the African American Studies program. She also has a partial appointment in American Studies. She is the author of 'Educational Reconstruction: African American Schools in the Urban South, 1865-1890' (Fordham University Press, 2016) as well as articles, book reviews, encyclopedia entries, and chapters in The Urban South During the Civil War Era, edited by Andrew L. Slap and Frank Towers, (University of Chicago Press, 2015), Epidemics and War: The Impact of Disease on Major Conflicts in History, ed. Rebecca Seaman. (Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio, 2018) and Reconciliation after Civil Wars: Global Perspectives, ed. Paul Quigley and Jim Hawdon (New York: Routledge, 2019). Follow her on Twitter @HilaryGreen77.