In a message addressed to the University of Texas at Austin community on July 13, 2020, President Jay Hartzell committed to a series of initiatives designed to continue the work of creating an environment at the university “in which students, faculty and staff are fully supported before, during and after their time at UT.” An important part of this effort will be recognizing and learning from our institution’s history and reflecting our values through campus symbols. In pursuit of this goal, President Hartzell pledged to:
- Honor Heman M. Sweatt by creating the Heman M. Sweatt Entrance to T.S. Painter Hall as the main entrance on 24th Street; placing a statue of Mr. Sweatt near the entrance; and then reimagining, redesigning, and rededicating a major space in the building as an exhibit and gathering place where we will tell the story of the U.S. Supreme Court case Sweatt v. Painter. This will recognize Mr. Sweatt’s courage and leadership in changing the world through the 1950 case that he won, allowing him and other Black students to attend UT. This will also place Painter Hall within the context of our university’s resistance to integration under T.S. Painter’s presidency and, ultimately, to the Sweatt decision’s crucial role in integrating public education.
- Honor the Precursors, the first Black undergraduates to attend The University of Texas at Austin, by commissioning a new monument on the East Mall. This will be the central feature of a larger space dedicated to the pioneering students and faculty members who helped move the university toward becoming more inclusive.
The Contextualization and Commemoration Initiative
The University of Texas at Austin’s Contextualization and Commemoration Initiative (CCI) is charged with carrying out the President’s initiatives. The unit addresses three key areas: commemoration, contextualization, and research. The three areas conceptualized below guide the execution of these initiatives and serve to enrich the university’s values and pedagogical mission.
Commemoration on The University of Texas at Austin’s landscape has played an important role in shaping the campus and university identity. Early campus architects conceived of a campus that was functional as well as beautiful and visionary, embedding in the landscape institutional ideals. Spaces such at the South Mall and Littlefield Fountain as well as the Tower represent early commemorative visions of the university leadership. More recent monuments, including statues of Cesar Chavez and Barbara Jordan, represent the university’s shifting values. Major public art works, along with the live oaks and array of campus flora, also express the aesthetic, environmental, and pedagogical ambitions of the institution. The commemorative landscape is diverse but also controversial.
UT’s South Mall, for example, has a history of public contestation. The Confederate statues that lined its walkway were removed after decades of debate around the meaning of their symbolism. The controversy over the statues highlights how commemorative landscapes and their contexts are never static; their symbolism and interpretations shift with the times.
The Contextualization and Commemoration Initiative recognizes this complex history. Its initiatives expand the commemorative landscape by recognizing the people and processes that have made The University of Texas a more inclusive public institution. In so doing, they guide the university community to reflect on the institution’s ideals—past, present, and future.
Contextualization serves as a method of inquiry into the history and social processes that built the institution. Through academic research and scholarship, the contextualization dimension of CCI’s initiatives will situate campus symbols, traditions, and the institution within UT’s historical environment and ethos.
The goal of contextualization is not to write a singular institutional narrative. The contextualization effort seeks to tell more diverse and inclusive histories of the institution by broadening familiar accounts and telling lesser-known ones. This work will expand the UT community’s understanding and critical engagement with the past by demonstrating how familiar historical narratives are constructed. Through the Contextualization and Commemoration Initiative’s research, the community will have the knowledge to interpret and engage our collective past in new ways.
The third component of the Contextualization and Commemoration Initiative’s work is to support scholarly research on all aspects of our institution’s history. This research is grounded in the value of scholarship as a tool of public education to educate our students as well as the general public about our institution’s lesser-known past. Research also guides and supports the development of all our commemoration and contextualization efforts.
To help achieve this agenda, faculty, on an application basis, were granted funds to conduct research in 6 primary priority areas:
- Sweatt v. Painter and UT’s role in the legal history of racial inclusion in US education.
- The Precursors and Early Graduates: an archive of the first Black students’ oral histories, videos, documents, and photos. To be followed by oral history collections related to specific communities on campus and significant events in the university’s history of inclusivity.
- UT’s demographic history defined in terms of student, faculty, and staff presence and participation in the UT community.
- Black worker and other staff of color’s historic contributions to the development of the UT campus.
- Contextualization of campus landscapes, buildings, and outdoor art through histories of their creation.
- UT’s expansion, including land acquisitions, developments, and local displacement histories.
Outcomes from these faculty-led studies will be available on this website as well as represented in campus commemorative projects.