Victoria Charles, ’16, remembers being a first-year student and feeling, in her gut, out of place.
While the University has made strides since first admitting black students in the 1960s, it’s still a predominantly white institution, and that means mostly white students surround Charles, whether she’s in class, grabbing lunch at D-hall, or studying in the library.
“I’m not saying I was treated differently, but to not see yourself in the people around you is different,” she says.
That feeling extended to a core part of the University’s identity — its own history. In a 2014 conversation led by Common Ground’s Terms of Racial Justice project, Charles and other students, faculty, and staff of color talked about feeling absent from the stories that are told about Richmond.
When Charles was searching for a summer research project a year later, she thought back to those conversations and wondered: maybe she could find a way to capture the story of black student life at the University.
Her search began with original source materials like The Collegian archives and the Virginia Baptist Historical Society, as well as a broader look at integration at predominantly white universities. She noted the language used to describe people of color, what black students were saying about activism groups, or how they typically went to nearby historically black colleges for social activities. Sometimes she looked at what was left unsaid.
Charles produced a 15-page paper comparing and contrasting integration at Richmond with other institutions and making the case that Richmond’s black students have often been radical activists in the way they choose to make space for themselves and have their voices heard.
But with a central theme being the lack of black student representation in the University’s narrative, she was left wondering, “Who’s going to see it?”
“I have this information, and people need it,” she says. “That was the start of my podcast.”
Titled “Expanding the Ivory Tower,” Charles’s podcast blends her research with her personal experiences as a black student on campus. It’s part of a larger project, Race and Racism at the University of Richmond, that aims to build a digital archive of the University’s racial history while inspiring deeper conversations through community-based learning courses and public events.
At the outset, she thought she might become disillusioned with her University.
“I came into my research thinking everyone’s story was going to be full of sordid details of struggle, and they were going to say that their time was really difficult,” Charles says. “But in a lot of what I found, there is optimism.”
She describes one example from 1971, when the Richmond College Student Government Association passed a resolution calling for the University band to stop playing “Dixie,” an unofficial fight song, at Spider football games. For weeks a debate raged in The Collegian. Those in favor of ending the tradition wanted to make black students feel more comfortable and worried it would deter prospective black students. Those opposed cited the historic legacy of the song, the importance of free speech, and the belief that the views of a minority shouldn’t sway the will of a majority.
Even though the resolution was ultimately overturned in a campuswide referendum, Charles says the moment shows that both black and white students were committed to creating an inclusive space and willing to work together to make change.
She described the outcome in an episode of her podcast. “‘Dixie’ isn’t played at games anymore because it is a fact of life that things change — even longstanding traditions of ‘traditional, historic value,’” she says. “At times, they go quietly, and at times they are fiercely contested, but they evolve nonetheless.”