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‘Racism at Beloit College’ art gallery proves discrimination not new to Beloit

Racism at Beloit College is a student made gallery, designed and curated by Winona Albano-Bachtell’17, which takes a hard and look at the myriad failures of the college regarding its treatment of students of color, particularly African-Americans. It’s located in Hales gallery, an easy-to miss room on the first floor of Pearsons, and runs from Feb. 6 to 28.

The exhibit’s photos and graphics line the room’s four walls and are displayed against blue and yellow paper, Beloit College’s official colors.This simple juxtaposition visually centers the the photography, reminding the viewer that Beloit is often not just a location of racism, but a perpetuator of it.

This notion is reinforced by Albano-Bachtell’s statement, which informs the viewer of the administration’s seemingly laudable 1846 proclamation prohibiting “racial discrimination in admissions as they claimed to ‘FOREVER ALLOW STUDENTS TO ENTER AND RECEIVE ITS ENTIRE BENEFITS WITHOUT DISTINCTION OF COLOR.’” Albano-Bachtell points out, however, that these were mostly empty words, as it wasn’t until the 1880’s that the college began to enroll African-American students. The gallery’s photos also make it clear that the college has frequently fallen short of the second part of that statement by denying students of color the school’s “entire benefits.” (Albano-Bachtell points to Theodore William III’s research about institutional racism at Beloit as a major help in getting her project started, and also thanks Donald Harris, Prof. Catherine Orr, Prof. M. Shadee Malaklou, Cecil Youngblood and Fred Burwell for their assistance).

Moving clockwise, the exhibit begins with two photos of the school’s first African-American female graduate, Grace Ousley’1904. In each photo she is surrounded by all white classmates, not excluded (at least in the photo), but hauntingly isolated. Beloit’s 1898 baseball team is displayed in a similar photo, where all but one of the sixteen men pictured are white (the exception is a black man identified only as Strothers). Albano-Bachtell cleverly brings the past to bear on the present by following this image with a picture of Beloit’s 2016 male baseball team and its 2010 karate club. In each photo, a single black man is situated in a predominantly white group.   

The most visually devastating piece in the exhibit features a picture of black student George Hillard’36 in a classroom with seven other (not black) students. The photo was taken in 1935. Three years later, Beloit’s admissions team put together a view book of the college and used the 1935 photo, with one notable difference. In a bit of photo manipulation evocative of the Soviet Union’s damnatio memoriae, the photo, titled “Where is George?,” has been manipulated to entirely erase George Hillard, the sole black presence in the room. It’s not difficult to connect this erasure to a racist profit motive which sought to attract white students and parents at the expense of erasing black ones. Campus archivist Fred Burwell’s comments beneath a photo-portrait of Hillard serve as a corrective to that erasure, by filling in the Chemistry Major, athlete, and surgeon’s impressive biography.

The photos (or lack thereof) of Hillard are shocking and depressing; they are followed by something revolting. In 1956, Delta Gamma (now Theta Pi Gamma) held a skit called “Let’s Go South” featuring performances in blackface. A photo of this skit is featured, along with a photograph of the “Charity Carnival,” where a white person in blackface holds a mic before a crowd. The caption that comes with the photo reads “Sold to the highest bidder.”

A change in campus and national culture is signaled by a photo of the Beloit to Madison March, when, according to research by Fred Burwell, 150 to 175 students skipped class to march to Madison in a show of solidarity with the Selma to Montgomery marchers. In the photo, a student stares at the camera, his forehead obscured by his sign which reads “SELMA TO MONTGOMERY FOR FREEDOM/ BELOIT TO MADISON IN FREEDOM.” Students bundled in jackets huddle together carrying similar signs.

This photograph signals a shift in the rest of the exhibit, as the remaining photos are largely composed of student activists raising awareness and demanding action. Current students can be recognized in the black and white photo of the Oct 2016 Freedom March. Next is an image of the twelve “Black Demands of ‘69:” a list of desired actions to be taken by the administration, such as: “Admissions program aimed at increasing the percentage of black students to 10% of the student body; Mandatory courses on the concept of blackness for student body, faculty, and administration;” and “End of harassment of black students by maintenance men, receptionists, security guards, and other college personnel.”

A picture of the ‘69 Protest for Black Demands within the Admissions Office compliments this list, featuring black and white students gathered under what appears to be a tribal African shield, as well as a Black man with an afro gazing at the camera as he plays a drum. A photo taken in the 1990’s shows that contention remained over Beloit’s Eurocentric curriculum, as students march holding signs that read “HALF AN EDUCATION IS NOT ENOUGH,” and “It is your Education…CLAIM IT!!!”  

The show ends with five photos from Beloit’s most recent history. The first shows three silent student protesters at the 2015 Board of Trustees Meeting, with one student wearing a sign that reads “Can you hear us now???” This is followed by a moving photo of the Black Lives Matter at Beloit staged die-in in 2015. In the foreground two black hands are clasped together, part of a large ring of people surrounding black students who lie symbolically on the ground, faking death.

A picture of eight female students participating in last semester’s #OccupyResLife protest, lead by Students for an Inclusive Campus is also included. By adding photography from such recent protests, Albano-Bachtell helps situate our recent past into a broader, historical context, reminding the viewer that demands for inclusivity are not new, and not unwarranted. This is especially true in light of the next photo, which shows student legs, feet, and the words “LET’S RECLAIM OUR CAMPUS” written in chalk in front of the Wall. Beneath the photo, Albano-Bachtell writes “‘Reclaim the Wall’ was an organized event that focused on increasing the dialogue and committing action to make our campus more safe and inclusive by reclaiming the space after a hate speech was graffitied on Whitney’s wall in Spring of 2015. To the viewer, what is your own definition of ‘reclaim’? Did the event serve its purpose? What were the successes and failures of each event?” These sound like end of chapter textbook questions, but Albano-Bachtell is right to encourage self-reflection. There can be an urge to view a display of historic institutional racism and come away feeling good about yourself- a sort of “Oh gee, they sure were racist back then! I sure am glad I’m not ignorant!” Albano-Bachtell’s gallery, however, subtly nudges its (white) viewers (Albano-Bachtell is white herself) to view themselves as part of the problem, not outside of it.

This point is accentuated by the final photograph. Dr. Nicole Truesdell is shown speaking at a Black Lives Matter Beloit panel in March 2015. Above her is a photo of a student holding a sign which reads “PEOPLE ASK ME WHY I CARE, I WONDER WHY YOU DON’T.”

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