Blackface & Erasure at Hollins University: Who Controls the Narrative?

Around noon on March 28th, 2019, Taylor Kenkel, the technical services and metadata librarian at Hollins University’s Wyndham Robertson Library tweeted out that they had been requested to delete digital evidence of blackface and other racism-centered images from Hollins’ past from public archives, and that they felt the decision to do so was unethical. They pushed back internally at first, and then took to Twitter to ask other librarians in their community what they thought best practices would be in this situation. Initially they were vague, not naming Hollins as the university in question.

hi! digitization/IR librarian/archivist types! how have you dealt with arbitrary take down “request” (more like order) that go against best practice from uni admin? as in something like “all existence must be erased from the IR because we say so” & the reason is… not copyright.”

i am keeping this extremely vague in public b/c i don’t want to be identified publicly for raising a fuss b/c i don’t want to be out of a job but this is really messing with me because the decision is… it’s not even a best practice thing, it’s… morally and ethically wrong.

this is really messing with me. i’m not the only one here mad/upset but we have no recourse here or room to protest, it’s coming directly from the uni’s president.

i will give you all a hint, basically someone up in admin decided that instead of being open they want to remove all public access to evidence of the racism that runs through the uni’s history, and now i’m being tasked with deleting everything

Hollins has a history of racism that is badly documented and only loosely understood even among students and alumni. Alumae Brittney Flowers has been working to document this history and track down the stories of enslaved persons and their descendants who were either owned by the University, the founders of the University, or who were employed (in some cases leased out) by the school in a variety of capacities (laundrywomen, handymen, cafeteria workers, construction laborers, etc.).

Until recently, the University has not really done much to document or acknowledged this history, but in the last couple years — largely through the work of Flowers and of Jon Bohland, an associate professor in the international studies department — Hollins has begun to acknowledge the way the institution was complicit in and benefited from the lives, bodies, and labor of enslaved individuals. Last spring, the Working Group on Slavery and Its Contemporary Legacies hosted a conference which featured some archeological research and the work of Flowers to document the histories of these individuals on the campus and in the surrounding community.

With the advent of a new Hollins University President, Pareena Lawrence, a woman of color, some in the Hollins alumni community hoped that the history of racism at Hollins would get more coherent recognition and that perhaps some kind of reparations would be made to the descendants of the enslaved individuals (many of whom still live in the Roanoke area and some of whom are even employed by the school today). However, with the revelation that President Lawrence had directed a quiet deletion of evidence of blackface on campus, these hopes turned to disappointment and anger.

Kenkel followed up on their initial Twitter thread the morning of April 2nd, saying:

so my boss pressured me to do this today & when i said “manually withdrawing form the IR takes TIME” card (b/c it WILL) he said “i see this as something a student could do” & i absolutely blew up & said i wouldn’t ask my students to engage in censorship/be complicit in erasure &&

i asked point blank “what if i said no, i wouldn’t do this. what happens then.” and he’s not answering have a staff meeting at 2 on this, ah oh god

look it’s… there are so many other options that are not being considered here. if admin is telling us “take them down” why can’t we counter w/ “no. we’re not engaging in censorship. also, here are the ways other institutions have handled this.”

i’m just saying do you really want to be THE ONLY school in VA to respond to racist imagery found in yearbooks by… removing access to them? & he’s acting like he’s against it but is refusing to push back on any of it & is keeping staff in the dark. tbqh it’s cowardice.

hi! yes! to be clear this is about the admin of a university in Virginia demanding the removal of public access to yearbooks in order to hide instances of blackface and racist imagery instead of reckoning w/its racist history.

AND ALSO at the same time by doing this engaging in erasure of queer history! in danger of giving too much info but we’re a women’s college & the early yearbooks have a fuckton of references to romance/romantic-type relationships between women and also cross-dressing and AHHHHHH

And then, after the aforementioned 2 p.m. staff meeting, they continued:

UPDATE: holy hell this is a mess. tl;dr is that the president hasn’t even met w/the library director, he was told to do all this through the VP he reports to. this was literally a decision made by admin w/no input from *anyone* w/in the library

rn the library is unified in opposition to this and i have support to *not* remove anything till after the library director meets w/the president; we’re pushing for her to meet w/the entire staff but idk if that’s going to happen. i’m still mad that this is being kept hush-hush.

we’re not issuing a statement or anything rn (i wish we would) but would if it got to the point where the president still pushed for this after actually talking to the library + the uni’s working group on slavery & its contemporary legacies

also i’m like we’re just as complicit if we issue a “statement of opposition” and still remove access and said as much in the mtg & i was asked point-blank in the meeting if i’d still refuse to withdraw the materials if it meant i’d lose my job & i said YEP



okay so i’ve been pushing back/firm that the rest of staff needs to be involved asap not that we’re getting a direct demand to do this now and i’ve been sent out of his office so he can “make a few calls” before we do anything and holy hell

boss agreed to an emergency staff meeting at 3:30 on this, I’ve told one other librarian who has told another one, we’ll see what happens next

my boss just walked into my office and asked my to show him how to take them down himself b/c he can’t seem to access them and i refused that too and he just walked back out

UPDATE my boss is proceeding with taking down four issues that have blackface in them, even after staff objected. I have .pdf copies of all of them and wayback machine has crawled them. the president is aware of this and STILL wants them removed from the IR

At this point I’m not hiding where this is happening. It’s at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia, and the university president has unilaterally decided to remove online access to four yearbooks that have people wearing blackface & that contain racist imagery.

The rest of the thread can be found at the links above, but I’ll limit my quoting from that day to end on this tweet where Kenkel names Hollins outright. The timestamp on the tweet above is 3:49 p.m., which is significant because at 4:16 p.m., I got the following email from the office of Pres. Lawrence in my Hollins student inbox. The email tries to spin the decision to make it look like a proactive measure on the behalf of the University to try to protect students of color from encountering racism on campus — which, as we’ve seen from Kenkel’s narrative, was never indicated as the original intention of the directive to delete the public archive, and also runs counter to how Hollins University has engaged with the racism in its past, to date. Here’s the letter:

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This statement, while seemingly lovely and well-intentioned, appears to me like an attempt at revising the actions of the University to look proactive because Kenkel’s public account was starting to draw interest from news organizations and journalists, and the University needed to act quickly to try to shape the narrative as much as possible.

I’m not the only one to see it this way, as other Hollins alumni began to engage the story, which was now being picked up by various local news outlets:

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“The real tea with all of this is that Hollins’ current president is a nonblack woman of color. This is one reason why it’s so important to understand that historical revisionism and antiblackness don’t need “white” people to exist, particularly at the institutional level.” (Natasha is a Hollins MFA alumae and a former visiting professor.)

The next day, around 5 p.m., the Working Group on Slavery and the library staff released a joint statement, reinforcing this sentiment:

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None of the members of the groups involved in releasing this statement would speak with me on the record — they were concerned about their job security if they spoke out as individuals rather than as collective.

Hollins has not issued (to my knowledge) a response to this statement yet, and the digital archive (with the exception of the four yearbooks in question) is available still, and the hard copies of the yearbooks with offensive imagery have had notes slid into their pages with the President’s initial statement.

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The librarian community at large takes issue with how Hollins has handled this, releasing a statement of solidarity with the library staff and the Working Group members here.

Ultimately, the way Hollins has handled this issue is insufficient, given the larger and more complex history at Hollins with racism and slavery. A couple statements and a poorly-publicized conference on the issue are not enough for an institution which claims to be a safe space for creativity and liberal arts — essentially a space for our most human selves — to flourish.

Hollins ought to hire someone like Flowers full time to research and document this history, and use the Working Group on Slavery in more concrete ways than just as a figurehead representing change, but actually allowing them to speak out as individuals and shape the future of the University, and help reconcile its present vision of itself to its ugly past.

Written by

Writer, editor. MFA in Creative Writing, Hollins University. Working on a memoir about growing up in a fundamentalist Quiverfull cult.

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