In the middle of campus stands the statue of William Marsh Rice. During tours of campus, tour guides are instructed to tell the well known story of Rice’s mystery-book death and how his lawyer friend helped to solve his murder. What is not told or acknowledged is Rice’s history as a racist enslaver who owned 15 slaves. What is not told is that the money that was used to found Rice University came from wealth earned by Rice’s cotton trading. What is not told is that he served on a slave patrol (aka a slave catcher). In Houston’s “The Weekly Telegraph” from February 27, 1856 — just 164 years ago — Rice submitted an advertisement that said he would “pay a liberal reward” for the apprehension of a missing female slave.
In 1964, just 56 (!!!) years ago, Ph.D student Raymond Johnson was the first Black student to be admitted to Rice. Many know that Rice University originally was a tuition-free institution but some may not realize that by allowing Black students to attend, the university broke its original racist charter. The only reason Rice currently charges tuition is because the original charter deemed education would be tuition free for “the white inhabitants of Houston, and the state of Texas”. While there were some Hispanic and Asian students admitted, Black students were prohibited.
Even to this day, only 9% of Rice’s undergraduate population are Black. The racist wishes of Rice underlie the values and foundation of the university we attend, and persist to this day in its very name.
Yet, instead of any acknowledgment of this horrific history or of Rice’s founding, the university continues to fondly refer to the founder as “Willy,” take PR photos of “Willy” with a Santa’s hat on and plaster his statue’s face all over flyers and magazines — some of these used to recruit the Black students that now attend campus. Instead of removing the stain of Rice’s legacy, he has become a benevolent figure for photo ops and marketing.
Given that Houston and many other cities around the world are taking down statues (including the Dick Dowling statue that existed right across the street from Rice in Hermann Park) we call on our alma mater to do the same. By leaving Rice's statue in the center of the quad and using his imagery in PR, Rice continues to immortalize a racist enslaver who intentionally impeded the ability for Black students to earn an education at Rice. His statue remains a reminder every day to Black students of the barriers to their success that existed then and now. We do not want something incredibly offensive remaining in the center of an education institution that supposedly values diversity and community care.
We call on Rice to walk the walk and do the bare minimum by removing Rice’s statue and his likeness from all of Rice’s branding and marketing materials.