Campus conversations about Judge Baylor’s history

With tension growing on whether the Judge Baylor Statue should be removed or not, students seek to learn more about the history of Judge Baylor. Christina Cannady | Photographer

By Emily Cousins | Staff Writer

The statue of Baylor University co-founder Robert Emmet Bledsoe Baylor sits at the heart of campus. Daily sit-ins are being held in front of the statue to educate others and push for the statue’s removal, citing Judge Baylor’s connections to the Confederacy and slavery.

The statue of Judge Baylor sits at the end of Founder’s Mall, directly across from Waco Hall. Prospective students, current students, alumni, faculty and other members of the Baylor community frequently take pictures in front of the statue.

On Feb. 1, Baylor University’s birthday and the first day of Black History Month, students gathered around the statue wearing all black to take a picture calling for the removal of the statue.

The history shared on Baylor’s BaylorProud website about Judge Baylor includes details about participating in the War of 1812, studying law, his conversion to Christianity in 1839, his time as a judge and of course, the founding of Baylor University itself. Neither the BaylorProud article nor Baylor’s other webpage on the naming of the school mention Judge Baylor’s ties to the Confederacy or ownership of slaves. The only mention of the Confederacy on the page is in reference to Judge Baylor’s nephew.

“Although Baylor was never married nor had children, he was quite close to his nephew John Baylor, as John lived with him for a time and wrote to him often when he left Robert Baylor’s house,” the page reads. “John Baylor led an adventurous life of his own as a noted Indian fighter, commander of the first Confederate invasion of New Mexico in the American Civil War, Confederate congressman, and gunfighter.”

Broken Arrow, Okla., senior Jada Holliday, creator of the form to sign up for daily sit- ins in front of Judge Baylor, said she used to work for the Visitor’s Center at Baylor, and she gave tours of campus to prospective students and their families. She said an hour into the tour, they would arrive at the statue of Judge Baylor, and she would give the history provided in the script.

Holliday said, after doing her own research, she was shocked to learn about Judge Baylor’s history involving the Confederacy and slavery.

According to tax records, Judge Baylor owned at least 20 slaves by 1860. He sentenced multiple slaves to death during his time as a judge. He was also an influential leader in the Texas Know Nothing Party. He used the Baylor campus as a training ground for confederate soldiers during the Civil War.

“I was giving tours, really inviting people to come to campus that I genuinely agreed with, until I did my own research,” Holliday said. “I realized that I did not agree with everything that they stood for.”

Holliday said the goal of the sit-ins is to push for the removal of the statue but also to educate people in the Baylor community about the entire history of Judge Baylor.

“Black history is American history,” Holliday said. “It shouldn’t just take 28 days out of the year for people to educate themselves on matters of past enslavement, past civil rights movement and so much more about what Black American history is. I just thought that I’d take the extra step and do it for us because not a lot of people have known. I think that’s been my favorite part about sitting out there is having people stop in and read, and then when they feel comfortable and gather the courage, ask more questions.”

Joy Baker, class of ‘15, said via email she was disappointed when she learned students were calling for the removal of Judge Baylor’s statue.

“Judge Baylor is the University’s namesake,” Baker wrote. “There are many traditions tied to his name and the statue on campus ranging from taking a picture with the statue, the Noze brothers painting his nose, him being dressed for different holidays, etc. He and the other founders of the university do deserve to be remembered for the good they did in founding the oldest university in the state of Texas.”

Baker said instead of removing the statue, sharing the full history of Judge Baylor would be beneficial.

“Here is ‘Somebody,’’’ Baker wrote. “They weren’t perfect by any means, but they did make a major contribution in this area and that is what we are emphasizing. We are not approving of their shortcomings, but placing importance of the greater good that came out of their contributions. That can be done with adding educational plaques to provide a more complete picture of his history and contributions. If it weren’t for Judge Baylor and many other people like him in our past, there might not even be a university for us to have this conversation about.”

Anderson, S.C., graduate student Abby Waters said some people in the Baylor community became defensive when they saw students asking for the statue to be removed.

“I think that what would be helpful is to ask people, ‘Why?’ and create that conversational piece and actually be open to understanding what’s happening and understanding why this is a need that is being asked for and kind of leaning into that conversation with curiosity, rather than getting defensive from one’s own discomfort,” Waters said.

Former Baylor student Carmelo Madrigal said removing the statue won’t fix any problems.

“I understand that there is a lot of healing to be done in our nation and a lot of unity, but trying to forget the past,” Madrigal said. “It’s like, you’re running away from the past. Don’t run. Embrace it. Once you embrace it, you have closure. You have healing in a sense. That’s how you bring change and you make progression.”

Associate Professor of History and Director of the Institute for Oral History Dr. Stephen Sloan said no matter what happens with Judge Baylor’s statue, the full history needs to be shared on tours and on the Baylor website.

“I’m a big believer that we need to embrace all aspects of our history,” Sloan said. “There is a tendency in the current moment to think everyone in the past was stupid and racist, and it’s surely a little more complicated than that. Whatever ends up happening, the statue does create an opportunity for conversation about some pretty complicated issues.”

Sloan said people are complicated, and going the extra mile helps to understand the complexities of historical figures.

“I think it’s much more important to understand R. E. B. Baylor than to celebrate him,” Sloan said. “Of course, I’m a historian, and maybe most people don’t have [or] don’t want to take the time to do that or make the effort to do it, but I feel like that’s a much more revealing and useful effort.”

Sloan said he can’t imagine what it’s like as a Black student to walk by Judge Baylor everyday.

“I’m sympathetic for the student that is angry and enraged,” Sloan said. “Right now, if you’re a minority student, you don’t feel welcome. One of the things that we’ve done in the history department is a diversity and inclusion committee, and I had them go and read Robert Gilbert’s oral history interviews. What’s amazing that one member pointed out to me is the themes that we read in the ‘60s resonate now with some of the things that we hear our students say, and that just breaks my heart that they don’t feel welcome. They don’t feel included. They don’t feel like the institution is fully theirs in the way that it should be. We use the term ‘Baylor Family’ a lot, but I know there’s some students that don’t feel like they’re as much a part of the family. Symbols like Judge Baylor make that more complicated.”

In the summer of 2020, the Board of Regents acknowledged Baylor University’s ties to slavery and the confederacy, and also formed the Commission on Historic Campus Representations. However, Holliday said Black students had to beg for Baylor to do something in response to the death of George Floyd.

“Baylor is sitting here protecting, not acknowledging until absolutely necessary is an issue,” Holiday said. “There needs to be a sense of urgency and a productivity that is quicker prioritized when it comes to matters of anti-racism and intolerance. Period.”

Holliday said relocating the Judge Baylor statue to a museum would show that Baylor is committed to shutting down racism.

“It will really show that the university that I chose four years ago because of its Christian values and because of their commitment to inclusion and diversity; that it is something that they want to champion in every situation, all the time,” Holliday said. “Not for enhancement to their credibility and not when it’s going to push them to pursue their tier one research status quicker. It would be a way for them to regain the entire student bodies trust once again, and that if there are individuals who are fighting against them being anti-racist, that they would call them on that and hold them accountable.”