COLUMN: Contextualizing Thomas Jefferson doesn’t forgive his racism

MU’s Taskforce for Contextualization of Thomas Jefferson is a poorly planned and executed idea that will not appease students seeking racial justice.

Sydney Lewis is a first-year journalism and political science major at MU. She is an opinion columnist who writes about politics and identity for The Maneater.

The recent announcement of the members of the contextualization task force for the Thomas Jefferson statue on the Francis Quadrangle has made headlines across MU’s campus. Based on the announcement, proper contextualization of Jefferson is unlikely.

The task force includes 16 members, most of whom are not students. The members appear to be representative of the MU community, but they are not. The announcement of the committee members gives little hope to people seeking justice.

The only undergraduate student on the board is Missouri Students Association President Anthony Tretter. He will be the sole voice for over 20,000 students. Tretter has been riddled with scandals this year and is a white man tasked with contextualizing a racist on behalf of the entire undergraduate population.

Earlier in the fall, Tretter was photographed breaking several COVID-19 guidelines and the MSA Senate passed a resolution requiring Tretter to make a public statement about the incident. If Tretter can’t even handle a pandemic that has been going on for months properly, how is he supposed to speak for students he has little in common with?

Tracey Mershon and Bill Roundtree, the President and Vice President of the Jefferson Club, respectively, serve on the board. The Jefferson Club is the organization that donated the Jefferson statue to MU in 2001. This is clearly a direct conflict of interest since the club is responsible for the statue’s presence on campus in the first place.

The Jefferson Club characterizes Jefferson’s legacy as “the support of higher education.” Their website does not note in any way that Jefferson was also a slave owner and a rapist. They don’t want to contextualize Jefferson’s past. They intentionally paint him as the ideal founding father who wanted to give everyone equal access to education. But that’s not who he was. The point of the contextualization task force is to broadcast to the public who he truly was.

It is unlikely any member of the Jefferson Club will actually contextualize Jefferson’s racist past based on the club’s view of his legacy.

After two meetings of the contextualization task force, the Graduate Professional Council withdrew their membership.

“Given student concern for the direction of the task force and the importance of supporting our fellow students, we feel it’s best to resign from the committee,” the group’s representative and president, Tori Schafer, said in a statement.

The task force also lacks sufficient representation. Although it isn’t surprising that MU thinks white people are best equipped to make decisions about race based on their negative history of handling racial injustice on campus.

The task force has four Black people on it, all of whom are men and two of whom are UM System Curators. There are no representatives from the Legion of Black Collegians, the only Black student government in the nation. There are also no representatives from the Black Faculty and Staff Organization, the Black Alumni Network or the Black Student Athlete Association. There are no Black women, Black non-binary people or Black undergraduate students represented on the task force.

There is no way for this task force to properly contextualize Thomas Jefferson without input from several facets of the MU community.

Black MU students have been protesting for years to remove the Jefferson statue and for racial justice on campus. Both undergraduate and graduate students have led protests for racial justice on MU’s campus for months, yet none of those students are on the task force.

MU can’t even build a task force representative of the university community. There is no way they can adequately contextualize a deeply problematic historical figure. There is no amount of contextualization that will make students feel okay to have the statue on campus.

As part of its commitment to highlighting organizations fighting for racial justice, the Maneater is encouraging readers to donate to The National CARES Mentoring Movement, a “pioneering community-galvanizing movement dedicated to alleviating intergenerational poverty among African Americans. It offers Black children in low-income families and unstable communities the social, emotional and academic support they need to unleash their potential and graduate from high school prepared to succeed in college or vocational-training programs and 21st-century careers.” Donate at: https://www.caresmentoring.org/index.php/donate

Edited by Sofi Zeman | szeman@themaneater.com

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