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UA panel tasked with decision on Fulbright statue

Trustees would have final say by Jaime Adame | August 7, 2020 at 3:28 a.m.
A statue of J. William Fulbright stands Wednesday, July 1, 2020, near the west entrance of Old Main on the University of Arkansas campus in Fayetteville. The statue was dedicated in 2002. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)

FAYETTEVILLE -- A 21-person committee formed by the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville will begin meeting this month to consider taking down a statue honoring former U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright after criticism of his record on civil rights.

A group that includes seven UA faculty members and six UA students will also consider stripping Fulbright's name from UA's arts and sciences college and recommending a change to a student dining facility named in honor of a former Arkansas governor, Charles Hillman Brough, who led the state from 1917 to 1921.

The committee will make recommendations to Chancellor Joe Steinmetz, but Todd Shields, dean of UA's Fulbright College and a committee facilitator, has said changes would require action by the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees.

Black student leaders critical of Fulbright this summer called for the removal of a 7-foot-tall bronze statue that sits on a granite base near the university's Old Main academic building. The statue was dedicated in 2002.

Students promoted an online petition begun about a year ago that also calls for changing the name of UA's arts and sciences college, which was renamed for Fulbright in 1981.

Fulbright represented Arkansas in the U.S. Senate for 30 years. He is perhaps best known today for introducing legislation in 1945 that created the international educational exchange program named after him.

"The committee will consult with noted Fulbright biographers, distinguished historians, and scholars who study race, art in public places and other related topics," Shields said in a statement.

Other committee actions will include meeting with UA student, faculty and staff leadership organizations, the university's alumni board and "leaders from other campuses who are having similar discussions," Shields said.

Last month, Shields told alumni the committee would likely consider multiple options for change, including perhaps adding contextual information near the existing statue or moving it so that it's less prominent.

Criticism of Fulbright's civil rights records comes from his actions in the 1950s and 1960s.

Fulbright signed what was known as the Southern Manifesto, an effort by southern congressmen and senators to obstruct school integration that had been ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court. The court had ruled in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka against racial segregation of public schools.

Fulbright -- who at age 34 was president of the University of Arkansas -- in the 1960s also participated in a filibuster against civil rights legislation. Fulbright, a Democrat, died in 1995.

Brough taught for a time at UA before becoming governor, according to the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas, which also notes that some historians rate him "as among the state's best governors."

Brough also had a role, however, in what's known as the Elaine Massacre of 1919, when many black sharecroppers were killed after organizing a union, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. Brough, as governor, relied on white informants and appointed a commission that was not asked to investigate the deaths but was instead tasked with "trying to prevent future such occurrences," according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

The UA-Fayetteville Education Association/Local 965 union in June passed a resolution calling for the Brough dining area to be renamed in honor of Wiley A. Branton Sr., one of the first Black students to integrate the UA School of Law. Branton throughout his career was known as a civil rights leader.

Shields and a historian, Calvin White Jr., UA's associate dean of humanities in Fulbright College, will serve as "nonvoting facilitators" during committee sessions, which are to be held virtually during the upcoming fall semester. A UA spokeswoman said Thursday the date of the first meeting had not yet been determined.

Along with current UA students, faculty and staff, the committee includes six alumni and "community" members: attorney Woody Bassett; pathologist Tony Hui; author and publisher Janis Kearney; assistant hospital administrator Daniel McFarland; Walmart data analytics leader Will Montgomery; and author and entrepreneur Shambrekia Wise.

Students taking part are: Braziel Hatch, Tyrah Jackson, Tamara Kuykendall, Julia Nall, Johnathan Valley and Daniel Webster.

Faculty members participating are: Caree Banton, Stephen Caldwell, Gerald Jordan, Violeta Lorenzo, Michael Pierce, Luis Restrepo and Jeannie Whayne.

Staff members taking part are: Adrian Smith and Trish Watkins.

Randall Woods, a UA faculty member and former Fulbright College dean, wrote a biography of Fulbright and spoke last month at an online alumni event about the former senator's legacy.

"I didn't want to be on the committee," Woods said in a phone interview Thursday. "As his biographer, it seems to me the best thing I can do is just provide information."

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