‘Receive it with an open heart’: Historic commission report to be released next week

Art courtesy of Baylor University

By Emily Cousins | Staff Writer

President Linda Livingstone moderated the discussion about the Commission on Historic Campus Representations in the final conversation of the three-part conversation series, “Perspectives on Our History.”

The panelists were Chair of the Board of Regents, Mark Rountree, and the three co-chairs of the Commission, Gary Mortenson, dean of the School of Music; Walter Abercrombie, associate athletics director for Baylor “B” Association; and Dr. Alicia Monroe, provost and senior vice president for academic and faculty affairs for Baylor College of Medicine and a member of the Baylor Board of Regents.

The Commission was formed to create a report that reviewed the historical context of Baylor’s founders and early leaders, created a plan for documenting this history and evaluated all current structures on campus within the historical context, according to a press release.

Monroe said the co-chairs each led a small group of eight or nine, and they would come together and share their findings and discussions.

“When it was time for us to speak, we would speak the truth in love that would create a space for not just authentic and patient, empathetic, human, humble listening, but when words were spoken, we were all respectful of the concerns of our colleagues,” Monroe said.

Monroe said the commission members connected on their Christian faith.

“We shared scripture freely,” Monroe said. “Members of the Commission often prefaced their comments by particular scriptures that came to mind. Scripture was not a box checking. Our prayers were not box checking. They were not a formality. It was in a bond of Christ.”

Abercrombie said learning about the founders being slave owners was difficult to swallow.

“When you realize some of the really good things that they did, and some of the powerful work that they were able to accomplish, and you see … they weren’t all bad men,” Abercrombie said. “They did some bad things … I think I was able to grapple with that and come to a place of peace … I found a place of peace, but a determination to make sure that we educate, and then we move forward in a very positive way together as an American society and as a Baylor family.”

Monroe said working on the Commission was the first time she had studied slavery specifically in Texas.

“We all became students of history. We approached our task with reverence — with seriousness — and we actually read some academic historical papers … by academics, who were actually on the Baylor faculty,” Monroe said. “So we actually read their work. I would say it was hard to read. It was painful … They pricked my heart. I think for many of us, we started the journey with regard to that first charge … really to learn about the history.”

Mortenson said they learned racism and racial tensions did not end with the Civil War.

“It wasn’t like the war came to a full stop, and everyone just totally accepted one another,” Mortenson said. “That was an extremely difficult transitional time as well, and so tensions continued. I think that they took a long time to resolve that, and in many cases, we are still dealing today with aspects of the Civil War, and the post Civil War period, and Jim Crow, and a lot of different areas. We naively thought we had made a lot of progress in the 1960s with the civil rights movement, but here we are today, and there still is a lot of polarization along serious lines. So there’s a continuum to history that I think struck all of us on the commission.”

Mortenson said the discussions with commission members were diverse and robust, but there was a healthy dose of laughter.

“One thing we started to get comfortable with, and this might sound a little bit odd, but we were holding a lot of tension in that room,” Mortenson said. “We found ways to be able to hold that tension and release that tension for short periods of time, and then re-engage that tension both as a large group and in the breakout sessions.”

Abercrombie said the Commission was focused on finding solutions to add to the story on campus, not take away what is already there.

“I don’t think the focus was, ‘We’re going to fix some stuff for the past,’ but, ‘We’re moving forward because we understand that this is the direction our country is going. There’s value in it,’” Abercrombie said. “I was proud that Baylor University took that same approach.”

On Feb. 19, the Board of Regents accepted the Commission’s report. In preparation to release the report to the public, the Baylor Conversation Series: Perspectives on our History covered three topics over the past three weeks: Slavery in America, Slavery in Texas and Baptist Life and the Commission on Historic Campus Representations.

The Ralph and Bessie Mae Lynn Chair of History Dr. Ronald Johnson, who moderated the previous two panel discussions about slavery, said he was very satisfied with the discussion about the Commission.

“I thought history really won the day, and it’s been featured over the last three weeks,” Johnson said. “I think our Baylor community has received more history from an academic perspective, from a public perspective, from the community perspective than probably most of us have had throughout our time here at Baylor.”

Rountree announced during the panel discussion that the full report will be released on March 23.

“All of the recommendations that you will see in the commission’s report will be carefully evaluated,” Rountree said. “Again, our goal as a board will be to discern how best to move forward with Baylor, again, guided by our Christian mission, anchored in God’s plan for redemption and reconciliation and directed toward making Baylor a better place … of belonging for our students, faculty and staff of color.”

When the commission’s report is released next week, the three co-chair’s stressed the importance of reading it with an open heart and an open mind.

“If there’s anything in the report that gives you pause or makes you slightly angry, keep breathing and keep thinking because the best of intentions are behind all of it,” Mortenson said.