I came to Brown University not knowing much about the history of the place. I just knew that there were multiple faculty members with whom I was excited to work and a generous stipend. Of course, once I arrived, it was hard not to step on all the bits of institutional history scattered around. At the time, the ongoing legacy of the 2004 National Labor Relations Board decision, which prohibited Brown graduate students from unionizing—a decision overturned in 2016—was the most obvious to me, but there were others.
The history department itself was split into two buildings. Peter Green House, a Victorian-style mansion that provided offices for most of the senior faculty, was festooned with old black-and-white photographs of white men in academic regalia and dark oil paintings of various (white, male) notables. I could feel their eyes following me wherever I went. The building was always dead quiet, but the floorboards creaked up a racket as I walked, announcing my intrusion into the space.
That sort of institutional legacy was, however, slowly being disassembled, starting in the early 2000s when Ruth Simmons became president of the university and the first Black woman to run an Ivy League institution. She didn’t exactly have large shoes to fill—Brown undergraduates still voice their opinion of her predecessor by naming the Spring Weekend concert porta-potty line in his honor. Instead, she had her own shoes made to fit and let others worry about filling them.
One of Simmons’s most notable initiatives was the establishment of the University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, the subject of Anthony Bogues’s contribution to this issue. But other echoes of her legacy also dot the campus—sometimes quite literally, like the memorial to “Africans and African-Americans, enslaved and free, who helped build our university, Rhode Island, and the nation,” which was installed on the campus green the year before I arrived. Others were bureaucratic, like the Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan (DIAP). I put in the work for a DIAP designation for my courses—not always an easy task for a historian of medieval Europe. But it expanded my own horizons and brought in the most motivated and engaged students.
Still other remnants of Simmons’s time at Brown were more like a change in mood or butterfly effects. After my first year, a department chair, hired during her tenure, began to replace those gloomy portraits of old white men with other kinds of art, and the space became brighter and more vibrant because of it. Thanks to a generous donor (and a recalcitrant local historical commission), the two department buildings have become one, and senior faculty now make awkward small talk with junior faculty and graduate students at the copy machines.
The old buildings weren’t demolished, though. One was picked up and moved, and then both were incorporated into a new structure. The architects even made sure to keep the three pieces visually distinct. And if you walk into the bit that used to be Peter Green House, the floorboards still creak.
Brown is far from the only university for which creaking floorboards are still an issue. Institutions accrete buildings over time, and some pieces of those edifices exist forgotten—until someone steps on them. Such creaks and groans are the subject of this issue. They manifest as statuary, legends, and skull collections, as in VanJessica Gladney’s article, or appear, as Cassandra Berman relates, in hard-to-reach corners of an archive. More recently, the histories they represent are being memorialized, as Jody Lynn Allen describes, and those who wish to do work in locations or institutions with troubled legacies have, as Elizabeth Ellis and Rose Stremlau detail, started to work through ethical and moral frameworks in which to do so. Many other creaks, groans, and bits of dry rot and mold abide in the structures of universities both in the United States and, as Simon Newman shows, abroad.
Time to take up carpentry.
Leland Renato Grigoli is editor of Perspectives on History. He tweets @mapper_mundi.
Tags: From the Editor
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