In the center of Rice University’s main quad sits a hulking bronze statue of the school’s namesake, William Marsh Rice. For some, “Willy’s Statue” is a harmless relic, a fun campus icon seen mostly as a backdrop for goofy college pranks.
To others, it represents the looming specter of white supremacy. Due to William Marsh Rice’s oft-overlooked history as a racist and slave owner, recent Rice alums Gabrielle Falcon and Summar McGee are working to rally enough support to convince the school’s administration to remove the monument to Rice from the heart of campus once and for all.
Rice tour guides are taught plenty of trivia to rattle off about William Marsh Rice to prospective students, usually focusing on the salacious story of his death: Rice was murdered by his butler, acting on behalf of a New York City lawyer who intended to use a doctored will to steal Rice’s fortune before the plot was uncovered by James A. Baker, Rice’s friend and grandfather to future Secretary of State James A. Baker III.
“What is not told or acknowledged is Rice’s history as a racist enslaver who owned 15 slaves,” said Gabrielle Falcon in the preamble to an online petition for the statue’s removal. “ What is not told is that the money that was used to found Rice University came from wealth earned by Rice’s cotton trading. What is not told is that he served on a slave patrol (aka a slave catcher).”
Looking at his own words, Rice himself was unequivocal in his racism—his will stipulates that his fortune should be used to create an institution specifically for “the white inhabitants of Houston, and the state of Texas.”
Falcon’s petition calls for the removal of Rice’s statue from the school’s main quad and for William Marsh Rice’s likeness to be removed from all university marketing materials. As of Friday morning, 2,490 people have signed the petition, which was disseminated Monday morning in a digital campaign organized by Falcon and fellow Rice alum Summar McGee.
Through their personal social media channels, Falcon and McGee linked out to a “Down With Willy” digital flyer that includes links to the petition, information about William Marsh Rice’s history, a list of demands compiled by current black Rice students for ways the university could better support black students (which also includes removing Rice’s statue) and templates for social media posts and emails to lobby the Rice administration to remove the statue which also tag local media.
Their campaign comes in the wake of protests around monuments honoring slave owners and racists across the nation and the discussions around the removal of statues celebrating the Confederacy by cities and universities throughout America. Earlier this month, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner ordered the removal of two such monuments, a statue of Richard “Dick” Dowling in Hermann Park and the Spirit of the Confederacy statue in Sam Houston Park.
In response to the killing of Houstonian George Floyd in early June, McGee led an effort to coalesce support from the Rice community for racial justice into a one-day digital fundraising campaign under the banner of a new organization, Rice for Black Life. The single-day fundraiser earlier this month raised $93,362 for Houston-area organizations working to end anti-black violence, including Black Lives Matter Houston, Indivisible Houston, Texas Organizing Project and Pure Justice. McGee graduated from Rice just weeks ago, and is the outgoing president of the campus Black Student Association.
After learning the details of William Marsh Rice’s history, McGee said she no longer saw the statue as a harmless sculpture. Instead, she couldn’t shake the image of a newspaper classified ad, where Rice asked for public assistance to help recapture a young black woman he’d enslaved that had escaped.
“There is no difference between me and her,” McGee said, “and I think that sitting with that is something that very much changed my perspective on that statue.”
Rice didn’t accept its first black student until 1964 when Raymond Johnson was admitted to the school’s mathematics graduate program. Johnson, who is now a Rice professor, was suggested as a potential choice for a new statue in the main quad by Rice alum Yoseph Maguire in an op-ed for the school newspaper, the Rice Thresher.
Falcon, who created the petition, also graduated from Rice this May, and served in several campus-wide leadership positions managing student businesses and helping to organize new student orientation. “I live by the ideal of leaving a place better than you found it,” she said. In that spirit, Falcon hopes that this current moment of heightened awareness of the pervasive structures of white supremacy throughout America will help inspire Rice’s administration to demonstrate their commitment to the mental wellbeing of black students by removing a monument to a man whose values do not align with the school she came to love.
“Those shackles still exist for students today, emotionally and mentally, when they have to pass by that person,” she Falcon said.
“Whether you’re thinking of black students or non-black students,” she continued, “this is something that we all have to come to terms with. We have to discuss how William Marsh Rice perpetuated racism and white supremacy, and how we uphold it now as an institution by allowing something like this to stay within the heart of our campus, how we use this in PR and marketing because we think it represents something that it doesn’t.”
In an email to the Rice community on Tuesday night, Rice President David Leebron and Provost Reginald DesRoches addressed the statue removal campaign, as well as the list of demands by current black students, promising to continue to foster a dialogue about racism and reckoning with racist elements of the school’s history but without promising any immediate action regarding the statue.
“Many of those writing to us have supported the removal of the statue,” their statement read, “but a diverse group of other students and alumni have written against the removal (while also speaking out in favor of measures to achieve greater equity and inclusion), or have suggested alternative approaches to addressing the issues raised by the statue.”
Leebron and DesRoches also reminded the Rice community of the school’s Task Force on Slavery, Segregation and Racial Injustice, which was created last summer and tasked with implementing a plan for concrete campus actions to address racist elements of the university’s history.
“That history,” their statement continued, “includes William Marsh Rice’s role as a slave holder, and the terrible racist provision of the founding charter that excluded non-white students until it was revised in 1964.” They also announced a July 6 event hosted by the task force, titled “Movements, Monuments, and Racism on Campus: A Conversation with Historians” that will discuss campus statues.
Both Falcon and McGee were members of this task force during their time at Rice, but clearly felt that more immediate action was needed on issues like the removal of Willy’s Statue.
“I’m excited to be part of this, and I hope something comes from it that actually has real change, whatever it may be,” Falcon said. She hopes that the administration and the greater public will realize their efforts aren’t meant to belittle or harm their university, but to help it going forward.
“That’s why we want to change it,” Falcon said. “Not because we hate it, but because we love it enough to want to improve it.”