Nearly 40 student activists gathered inside the University of Missouri’s (MU) primary administration building, Jesse Hall, to protest racial injustice last Friday. Protesters occupied multiple floors of the building for almost two hours following an initial demonstration next to the controversial Thomas Jefferson statue in Francis Quadrangle. The demonstration’s organizers, a group called Mizzou 600 – named in reference to the 600 slaves Jefferson owned – used the spot to state their demands.
The group’s primary demand called for the university to remove the statue and tombstone of Jefferson, a request various student groups have made since 2015.
“The disregard for our trauma as we walk through this quad everyday, as we look at this statue, as we look at this tombstone… that is unacceptable behavior from people who care about their students, who claim to be anti-racist,” an anonymous protester said during the demonstration at Jesse Hall.
The statue’s removal was also the cause of protests earlier this year in late May and June following the death of George Floyd. Students marched across campus and created a petition that garnered over 3,000 signatures before the university announced it would not be removing the statue.
“After further discussion with other curators, the university decided not to remove the Jefferson statue,” University of Missouri system President and MU Chancellor Mun Choi wrote in a statement. “We learn from history. We contextualize historical figures with complex legacies. We don’t remove history.”
Choi’s office announced in a later statement that the university was planning to ensure that Jefferson’s legacy as a Founding Father and his “participation in an institution as vicious as slavery” would be contextualized, though what that entails remains unclear.
“We strive for education and awareness of the full history,” Jenna Roy, the chancellor’s executive assistant, wrote on behalf of Choi. “Though this is a decision you may not agree with, we hope our community will work together on a variety of actions to serve our common goal: A more inclusive Mizzou.”
Jefferson’s legacy became subject for debate again in late September after the university decided to invest $20,000 on an acrylic case that would protect the tombstone from vandalism. The decision has drawn criticism from students across the UM system, including Charisma Sewell, the campus representative for UMKC College Democrats.
“I genuinely believe it is a waste of funds and resources especially with the obvious disdain from the student body,” Sewell said. “There are many other places on campus that the resources could have been used for.”
Sewell said she believes the university’s actions show how much the administration values student input.
“Unfortunately, I don’t believe that the students’ voices are given weight, which I believe is seen through MU’s decision to use such a large sum of money to protect a statue that such a large percentage of their student population did not approve of,” said Sewell.
The sculpture’s artist, George Lundeen, told reporters at the Missourian that he understood why students were upset by the statue’s presence.
“It’s been a fight, and I don’t blame those people for fighting. It’s an honorable mission they have, and hopefully they can do it without violence,” Lundeen said. “Tell [MU], if they want to sell or give away that sculpture, put it back on a truck, and I’ll come and get it.”