August 24, 2021
Ongoing renovation work in The University of Texas at Austin’s Battle Hall has led to the discovery of a handwritten sign that reads “For Whites” on a previously hidden interior wall. Preliminary research suggests that it was written in 1910 or 1911, during the building’s construction, and that it was intended to be temporary—directed toward construction workers and covered with finish materials as the building progressed. Upon discovery of the writing, the university’s office of the president—in consultation with faculty and staff on campus—tasked a team of scholars with investigating the origins and intent of the writing and with devising a plan for its contextualization and preservation.
“The discovery of the writing bears witness the university’s history at the turn of the century, which mirrors that of our state and nation at that time,” said Jay Hartzell, president of The University of Texas at Austin. “I am grateful to Dr. Ted Gordon, Dr. Tara Dudley and Dr. Don Carleton for leading our efforts to take this disheartening discovery from 1911 and craft it into a teaching moment for our campus community.”
Battle Hall is one of UT Austin’s most historic buildings. Completed in 1911 as a library and archive, it has hosted offices for deans, presidents and regents as well as local cultural icons such as J. Frank Dobie and Charles Umlauf. The recent renovation of Battle Hall involved making the ground floor bathrooms accessible to users with physical disabilities. In doing so, the original marble wall paneling was pulled back in a former women’s restroom, revealing the period writing.
Preliminary archival research led by Dudley, Gordon and Carleton, suggests that the women’s bathroom was utilized by white male workers during construction as a makeshift break and restroom. African American craftsmen and stone masons were also working on the project, and the writing was directed at them. As the room was finished out, the sign was covered over with the marble paneling. It was not seen again until this year.
“The writing is a stark reminder of a past that we do not miss but cannot dismiss. However, the writing doesn’t simply document racist systems and workplaces—if we treat it as a historical document and read it against its grain, we see how it also speaks volumes to the presence and contributions of Black workers on campus,” said Dudley, a lecturer in the School of Architecture. “Those workers helped build this university. They contributed their skills and energies to its development well before they or their children were welcome as students or faculty. They deserve to be identified, to have their skills recognized, and to be celebrated.”
The university has commissioned a research and documentation initiative with regard to the signage and its historical and contemporary significance. This research will form the base of an archive, housed at UT’s Briscoe Center for American History, that documents the period and the writing found in Battle Hall. The archive will include high-resolution photographs of the writing, newspaper clippings and other historical documents that will be accessible online and in the center’s reading room. “As with all the center’s archives, this collection will be open to scholars and students, meaning it can be utilized for research and teaching,” said Carleton, the center’s executive director. “Historical evidence should always be the foundation of how we understand the past.”
Moving forward, the university will rely on campus experts to elaborate plans that will incorporate this discovery into ongoing campus contextualization projects.
After consultation with Black faculty and staff, the university has decided to re-cover the writing. “We must recognize the injustices of our institution’s past. We will do so through publicly exposing that past and acknowledging it through contextualization and pedagogy. Placing the sign back in the context in which it was discovered ensures that members of the community, particularly staff, students and faculty of color, will not be randomly exposed to the writing’s painful message,” said Gordon, the university’s Vice Provost for Diversity. “The hurtful signage will remain preserved and reburied, but tagged and available for rediscovery if and when we need further reminders of our past’s harsh realities. In the meantime, we will continue to mark that space in our community —in ways that candidly acknowledge that past, but that also celebrate the historic contributions of Black workers to the building of UT.”
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