After two labels reading “White Only” and “Colored” were found "affixed" to doors and water coolers in a Virginia college dorm last week, the administration of Sweet Briar College took fast action to get to the bottom of it.
The all-women's school, located about 12 miles north of Lynchburg, sits on a former plantation and was racially integrated 50 years ago, WSET-TV reported.
Indeed the urgency seemed palpable in the note to the school from interim president James F. Jones Jr.
"For someone who grew up in the deeply segregated South, those words recall to me a world of racial discrimination, disregard for human dignity, and institutionalized prejudice," he wrote of Thursday's incident. Jones said an investigation had been launched and that the person responsible should come forward, per the school's honor code.
Jones added in his note to the school community that he'd just watched the play, "In Sweet Remembrance," which bills itself as "a tribute to the significant role of the black community throughout the College’s history." Jones remarked how moved he was by the performance "depicting a racially divided world view and attempts to mitigate the pain, anger, and hurt that a racially divided world engenders."
That is, until he learned about the labels found in Meta Glass Hall on the first day of classes.
Jones offered that the stunt may have been perpetrated by someone "moved by the play" who "sought to use the old, abusive words to remind us that while such terms were part of the historical past, some of the emotions lurking behind the words might still linger in a few."
Sure enough, Jones got an anonymous email from a student that night confessing to the whole thing — right along the lines Jones himself suggested as a "more theoretically positive" reason: "My mission was to show others that words can still have an extreme impact, and the past still resonates with us all," the student wrote, adding that "I was trying to make a point, but the point ended up 'making me.'"
Jones said he wrote back to the student, encouraging her to turn herself in to the school's administration, adding that "sometimes our actions and words, no matter how well-intentioned, backfire unexpectedly and inflict pain, hurt, and suffering upon others around us."
Then Jones got another email from the student, this time with her name. In a follow-up note to the school community Tuesday, Jones wrote that he and Dean Cheryl Steele "met privately with the student into the night" then posted the student's entire mea culpa.
[sharequote align="center"]"...we will care for our perplexed, idealistic, young student friend as we should and as we must."[/sharequote]
Jones didn't reveal the student's name nor did he indicate if she faces disciplinary action. But Jones added this: "And I promise all of you that we will care for our perplexed, idealistic, young student friend as we should and as we must. Simultaneously, we have to find ways to care for the wounds the past several days have inflicted upon the soul of our school."
In the meantime, the incident has sparked anger and upset within and without the school.
The headline of one reaction piece begins with "Virginia College Students Attempt To Bring Back Segregation" and adds a blistering takedown: "Unfortunately, women of Sweet Briar College, you’re proving to be no better than our very tarnished past. And believe me, when your looks fade and your Hampden-Sydney husband leaves you for a younger model of your former self, you’ll be left with nothing but three kids and an ugly, ugly soul. Hate doesn’t look good on anyone–even those in riding boots."
Sweet Briar resident assistant Kiona Davis said students were shocked when they heard about the “White Only” and “Colored” labels.
"A lot of them would rather stay locked in their room instead of coming out," Davis told WSET , "because they didn't think it was going to be like that."
Student Body President Katie Craig told the station she stayed up until 3 a.m. consoling fellow students after the incident was reported.
"I'm sad and I continue to be sad," Craig told WSET. "It's not indicative of what we are."
Craig also emailed a note to students emphasizing Sweet Briar women are progressive, not oppressive, the station noted.
"We are not going to let this singular act define our ability to move past it and what Sweet Briar women are capable of," Craig said, according to WSET.
UPDATE 6:33 p.m.: President Jones said late Wednesday that the person behind placing the "White Only" and "Colored" labels in the dorm is black and is no longer enrolled at the school. Sweet Briar wouldn't comment to TheBlaze if she was expelled or left on her own, citing federal guidelines protecting students' educational records. In addition, Jones noted that the ex-student's name will not be revealed.
Here's more of Jones' statement:
Over the past several days, it has become increasingly clear that I need to clarify one point: the calls made for forgiveness for the student–who came forward and admitted to making and placing the labels in Meta Glass Hall–do not remove the need for responsibility and accountability. As I stated previously, the College has continued its investigation.
As a result, the student responsible is no longer enrolled at the College.
Per federal regulations, the name of the student involved will not be released, but because of the circumstances and the questions it has raised, I can tell you that she is African-American and that I believe her apology was sincere.
While this closes our investigation, the discussions about inclusion and respect must continue on our campus. We must acknowledge the pain that has befallen our community, and we must find a path forward. Very soon I will have information to share about how the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities will be helping us in that effort.
UPDATE 7 p.m.: Sweet Briar College was under a lockdown for about an hour Wednesday morning after the school received a threatening phone call, according to Christy Jackson, the college's director of media, marketing, and communications.
The call seems to have been in reaction to the label-posting incident on campus last week, according to WSET-TV, citing the Amherst County Sheriff's Office.
The station, citing Major Betty Wise, reported the anonymous male caller made the following statements:
- "We want justice."
- "Who is the white girl that did this?"
- "Ferguson and now this."
- "Hands up! Don't shoot!"
- "We're coming up there. We want justice."
Wise told WSET that the phone call lasted 30 seconds or less and was too short to trace.
"At this time, no evidence of an intruder has been found. However, local law enforcement and Virginia State Police will remain on campus, investigating the incident and providing additional security," the News & Advance reported, citing the school's Facebook page.
At the time of the lockdown students were texted letting them know that it was not a drill, WSET reported, adding that the campus siren was also sounded. Students and faculty were told to stay where they were, the station added.
This story has been updated.
(H/T: The College Fix)