University of Iowa To Create Archive of Black Lives Matter Protesters’ Spray Painting

In Iowa City, a group known as the Iowa Freedom Riders (IFR) demonstrated against systemic racism and police violence during the first week of June, by blocking traffic and spray-painting messages across the city, including on the walls of a number of University of Iowa (UI) buildings. UI archivists recognized that the messages were part of the school’s institutional memory.

exterior building wall and sidewalk with spray painted messages that read
Photo by David McCartney

Following the death of George Floyd, protesters filled streets and campuses to speak out against police violence and discrimination and support the Black Lives Matter movement. In Iowa City, a group known as the Iowa Freedom Riders (IFR) demonstrated against systemic racism and police violence during the first week of June, by blocking traffic and spray-painting messages across the city, including on the walls of a number of University of Iowa (UI) buildings.

Many such markings were placed on and around UI’s historic Old Capitol and the four buildings surrounding it, in a four-block area known as the Pentacrest.

The university’s Facilities Management department ultimately spent about $1 million to clean the buildings—several of which are more than 150 years old and required careful treatment to protect the facades. At the same time, UI archivists recognized that the messages were part of the school’s institutional memory. Working with the campus’s Pentacrest Museums and Office of Strategic Communications, the UI Libraries captured images of the protest slogans, which will become part of an archive comprising personal papers, documents, photographs, video clips, sound recordings, first-person narratives, and other artifacts of the protests.

In his nearly two decades as University Archivist, David McCartney has seen a growing need to step up the university’s documentation of social and political activism on campus and in the Iowa City community. His predecessor actively collected antiwar documentation from the 1960s and ’70s, he noted, as well as anti-apartheid and anti–nuclear movement records from the UI Student Government’s New Wave Party in the late ’70s through early ’90s. McCartney has curated UI Libraries collections such as Uptight & Laid-Back: Iowa City in the 1960s, which includes records of civil rights and political protests.

But largely, “We have come up short as archivists in documenting, in contemporary time, the activity of social and political activists in our communities,” McCartney told LJ. “Our profession has not really met that expectation that we should be more proactive in documenting community.” Initiatives such as the crowdsourced George Floyd & Anti-Racist Street Art database, based at the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of St. Thomas, Saint Paul, MN, are working to fill that gap.

 

A HISTORIC GATHERING POINT

McCartney recognized at once that the spray-painting was important evidence of the historical moment. That idea was confirmed when Liz Crooks, director of the Pentacrest Museums, reached out to him in the days following the protests and assured him that she and her staff would be taking photographs. IU’s Office of Strategic Communication deployed its full-time photographers as well. Within couple of weeks, McCartney said, the three departments had begun their collaboration.

The Old Capitol Building has long been a site for protests. Built in 1842, it served as the territorial capitol until 1846 and state capitol until 1857. When the state government seat was moved to Des Moines, the Greek Revival–style Old Capitol became the central building of the newly established UI. The four Beaux-Arts buildings surrounding it—Jessup Hall, Macbride Hall, MacLean Hall, and Schaeffer Hall—form the Pentacrest.

The parcel of land is “almost synonymous with rallies and gatherings of all types,” noted McCartney; civil rights–era demonstrators gathered there, as did anti–Vietnam War protesters. “So it was natural, really, for the Iowa Freedom Riders to initially organize there.”

The protests were peaceful, marching through the city and rallying outside city council members’ homes. The spray-painting—McCartney and his partners made a conscious decision to avoid the term graffiti, which has pejorative connotations—included “Unite,” “Say their names,” “Black Lives Matter,” and “BLM,” as well as anti-police slogans such as “Oink oink” and “Fuck 12,” and silhouettes of George Floyd’s face.

The representation of Black students at UI is far below the national average of 37 percent of enrolled college students (according to the National Center for Education Statistics)—as of 2018, the university had just under 1,000 Black students out of some 32,000. Iowa itself is 4 percent African American, according to the State Data Center of Iowa and the Iowa Commission on the Status of African Americans, and according to the ACLU, is the fifth worst state in the country for disparity in marijuana arrests of Black people.

In addition to the Pentacrest buildings, other UI buildings tagged included the President’s Residence, the Biology Building, Kinnick Stadium, UI Hospitals and Clinics, the Iowa Memorial Union, Currier Hall, Mayflower Hall, Burge Hall, Daum Hall, Phillips Hall, Biology Building East, the Psychological Brain Sciences Building, Van Allen Hall, the Pappajohn Business Building, Voxman Music Building, the Campus Recreation and Wellness Center, the Pharmaceutical Sciences Research Building, and the Field House. Protesters made their marks on sidewalks, retaining walls, steps, plaques, light poles, windows and screens, signs, artwork, and benches as well.

“We have a crucial responsibility, as a community and as an institution of higher education, to recognize the meaning and the message behind the spray-painting, to honor its significance in this historic moment, and to not let the message be lost or diminished,” said Executive Vice President and Provost Montserrat Fuentes in a press release. “However, we also have a responsibility to care for the property and landmarks that have been entrusted to us, and it is important that we proceed with careful clean-up and restoration.”

 

CAMPUS PARTNERS CAPTURE THE MOMENT

Facilities Management needed several weeks to conduct a full assessment as to how remove the paint without damaging the older buildings, particularly those of the Pentacrest—the Old Capitol is built of porous Iowa limestone, which could be easily damaged. During that time McCartney, Pentacrest Museums staff, and the Office of Strategic Communication’s photographers captured images of the spray-painting. Each office will apply its own metadata in accordance with UI Libraries’ recommendations: date, location, and any directional orientation that can be added to help future researchers pinpoint locations.

“The photos will be fully accessible online at a later date, as staff take care with each photo to assess and preserve the digital files, add accurate descriptions to the extent possible, and craft finding aids,” Margaret Gamm, head of Special Collections and University Archives at the UI Libraries, said in a press release. “This process ensures the photos will be easy to access and will raise the visibility of the vital information they contain: the voices of marginalized people.”

In addition to these photographs, McCartney hopes to add posters, t-shirts, and pictures from protest participants, if they wish to contribute them. The collection includes some images captured from social media, but McCartney is mindful of privacy and reproduction issues. “There are circumstances that we need to be mindful of, which is why we need to have closer conversation with IFR members before we go to that next step of acquiring images beyond what's been published already either by local news media or other sources that are considered public in nature,” he told LJ. “It's a paradox for us as archivists, because we are by definition eager to document community, but especially in recent years we have become more cognizant of the needs of the communities being documented.”

The archive will include comments from the UI community, collected from a form similar to one set up online for people to share their COVID stories. McCartney plans to suggest that IFR members conduct interviews with each other, StoryCorps-style, for an oral history component. Another collecting strategy, he added, will be to schedule captures of selected university websites through the Office of Strategic Communications.

The archive is very much a work in progress, McCartney emphasized, and no decisions have been made about a public online exhibit or using it as a teaching tool. But he believes that this is an important first step in developing a working relationship with the people and movements UI hopes to document. “There is a tendency to simply go through the motions of collecting without fully understanding what the implications may be, or even taking into account the pressing concerns of that community in the moment,” he said.

“We're still recognizing our need to learn more from these experiences in that we want to be as considerate as we can in initiating contact, but also ensuring that we're here for the long haul. We're not going to check off the boxes and go on to the next thing.”

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is News Editor for Library Journal.

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