What a serendipitous moment to reflect on Kirby Hall of Civil Rights and the crushing power of apathy. At a time full of civil unrest and national exposure of systemic issues, I could not help but feel reminded of the passion and frustration I felt during my time at Lafayette. It is the very same passion and frustration I feel when I look on social media to find the latest example of what unchecked power will lead to in a society convinced we are better than we actually are. This reaction intensifies with every #AllLivesMatter post, which disregards the pain from yet another unwarranted death and blatant assaults on peaceful protestors.
As I commemorated my 10-year graduation anniversary from Lafayette, I was hit with vivid memories of my activism on campus. Seeing the world band together against apathy and watching historical monuments of oppressors fall made me vastly interested in how Lafayette has changed since I left. We see places all around trying to remove symbols that represent racism and injustice, but I could not shake nagging questions about Lafayette. How does the Lafayette campus feel about the world we are in? Are there portraits of women or people of color in Kirby Hall? Do students on campus still feel the stinging hypocrisy of a school outwardly craving diversity but minimally sustaining it? Is that PLAQUE still up?
When I arrived at Lafayette for my first year, I was excited because I viewed it as a chance to spend years surrounded by bright and talented people my age. I never considered the next four years would have historical implications or be salient to current events. In 2008, we elected the first Black president, which was my first opportunity to vote. Imagine the adrenaline and disbelief when it was official. Imagine the endless hopes and dreams that run through your head when an impossibility becomes reality. Still, society was far from perfect, and Lafayette was a reflection of this reality. I arrived on campus to brown paper bag tests, students in blackface, and a civil rights building that housed busts and portraits of white male slave owners.
What comes to mind when you think about a building dedicated to civil rights? For 80 years, from 1930 to 2010, Lafayette’s Kirby Hall of Civil Rights would tell you, “This hall of civil rights is to provide facilities for instructions in the Anglo-Saxon ideals of the true principles of constitutional freedoms including the rights of man to own property and do with it as he will.”
The building’s dedication to “civil rights” was not remotely connected to civil rights, as we understand it now. Lafayette allowed this antiquated perspective to remain even as it evolved its admission and recruiting practices to include women and students of color. Throughout the years, Kirby Hall glorified historical figures who despite their many achievements, owned human beings and would oppose the institution’s growing diversity efforts. While the College changed its demographics, its infrastructure remained stagnant and directly affected the culture of the campus.
…we shifted our focus to create an environment where diverse histories and the evolution of civil rights were celebrated instead of excluded.
I could not have made it through my years at Lafayette without the support of my Posse and friends. They became my lifeline as I struggled with the culture shock of going from Washington, D.C., to Easton, Pa. We spent days talking about our lives on campus, sharing many laughs and more tears over our triumphs and tribulations. In discussing our struggles, we found a common thread that encapsulated the hypocritical nature of celebrating diversity while upholding outdated ideals—Kirby Hall of Civil Rights. Inspired by Obama’s hope and change platform, a group of diverse students put together a plan to revamp Kirby Hall and remove the plaque.
Fast forward to junior year, we formed Students Against Apathy (SAA), and our goal was to create a platform the administration couldn’t ignore. Individually it was impossible to create change, but together, we were an unstoppable force. In order to have our voices heard, we became leaders of prominent student organizations. This allowed us the funding and platform to gain support from students and faculty across campus. As a group, we hosted public forums, posted banners across campus, and created a movement demanding change. Capitalizing on this momentum, we secured administrative backing after showing up at the president’s office several times until we were taken seriously.
Although our original goal was to remove the plaque, our meetings with administration required compromise. It was decided the plaque would remain to preserve history, but the interior of the building would be renovated to reflect the College’s current ideals. With this in mind, we shifted our focus to create an environment where diverse histories and the evolution of civil rights were celebrated instead of excluded. While this was a big milestone and the building did become more inclusive, I still wanted the plaque removed, and that thought would constantly revisit me throughout the next 10 years.
As I reflect on my time at Lafayette and witness the removal of controversial monuments across the globe, I still ask myself if that plaque will ever come down. To imagine the world is having these same conversations, on a much larger scale, is a surreal feeling. It is a constant struggle for me to see the battle between tradition and progress. I continue wondering when “tradition,” like Kirby Hall of Civil Rights, will be redefined to include all our history and not only limited to the experience of “Anglo-Saxon Males.”
Marquis Clements ’10
DC Posse 1