Over the course of three days in October 1925, a crew of men equipped with horses and steel cables pulled a giant boulder out of the side of Observatory Hill on the UW-Madison campus.
Carried by glaciers from perhaps as far north as Canada, the 65- to 70-ton rock was dumped, along with billions of tons of other debris, when the ice receded some 12,000 years ago.
Until it was winched out of the hill and moved to its current location next to Washburn Observatory, only about a foot and a half of the rock had shown above ground.
Officially, the boulder would come to be named “Chamberlin Rock” after Thomas Crowder Chamberlin, an eminent 19th-century geologist and university president.
But at the time of its discovery, some referred to it colloquially as “Niggerhead rock,” a commonly used expression at the time to describe any large dark rock.
Which is why, amid a national reckoning over race after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, Black students at UW-Madison are calling for the removal of the rock that, while a relic of Wisconsin’s rich geological past, also serves as a painful reminder of its pervasive, racist history.
“You clearly see what the rock was called and you can’t deny the history. Additionally you can’t deny the way it makes some people feel,” said Black Student Union president Nalah McWhorter. “If you’re not going to move the things that are disrespectful to us because other students love it, put something up that us Black and brown students can celebrate.”
Earlier this summer, the Black Student Union attracted national attention for its call to remove the Abraham Lincoln statue from Bascom Hill because of what they see as the former president’s anti-Indigenous and anti-Black history despite Lincoln’s legacy of ending slavery in the U.S.
Receiving less attention was the group’s other demand to remove Chamberlin Rock.
For decades, students of color have pushed the administration to improve the campus climate, reaching a crescendo in 1969 with the Black Student Strike. For two weeks, students boycotted classes and took over lecture halls until the administration met some of their demands, which included the creation of an Afro-American Studies Department.
More recently, the campus was shaken in 2016 after a fan attending a Badgers football game was photographed holding a noose around the neck of a person wearing a mask of former President Barack Obama. And in 2019, a Homecoming video featuring almost exclusively white students sparked a backlash, especially after a Black sorority pointed out that its members participated in the project but were left out of the final version.
UW-Madison has long faced criticism for its lack of diversity on campus, as just 2% of the student body is Black.
A recent report by Education Trust, a national nonprofit which serves to close opportunity gaps for students of color or low-income students, gave the university an F in Black student access for selective public colleges and universities and noted its percentage of Black students has remained unchanged since 2000.
The indignities, Black students say, come in ways large and small, with many reporting persistent occurrences of “microaggressions” and racially insensitive acts on campus.
Shortly after Floyd’s death, UW-Madison student Djamal Lylecyrus started an Instagram page featuring anonymously submitted experiences of students who identify as Black, Indigenous or another minority group, detailing the isolating and sometimes discriminatory treatment they say they have received on campus.
One student described attending a session of a campus cultural competency training, now required of all first-year undergrads, known as the Our Wisconsin program.
As the only nonwhite student in the session, the student said that when stereotypes about the student’s ethnicity came up, the entire room would look in the student’s direction, causing the student to feel silently judged.
“I would say that things can always be better,” Lylecyrus said. “I don’t know why we are settling for just OK. The problem is that a majority of students on the campus don’t have to go through a misrepresentation of their culture or don’t have people staring at them like they have literally never seen a Black person before.”
The Black Student Union has also led online “Zoom for Justice” sessions to discuss issues of race, voting and advocacy. And the group has partnered with other organizations to start a Black Initiative Fund, a student-led GoFundMe campaign to support programming for Black students and organizations on campus.
The fund has raised almost $20,000 since June.
“I think that student advocacy and student-led initiatives are the most important avenue for change,” said Student Council president Laura Downer. “They can be frustrating sometimes because you have students going against institutions that have stood since 1848. It makes it difficult to pursue change.”
‘Scars on our past’
For some, nothing illustrates the glacial pace of change more than the continued presence on campus of Chamberlin Rock.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, “Niggerhead” was commonly used to describe any dark rock, boulder or other object said to resemble the heads of Black people. The term was even used to describe soap, chewing tobacco, stove polish, canned oysters and shrimp, and a variety of different fabrics for clothing.
A Wisconsin State Journal article on the extraction of the boulder was headlined “Dig up huge ‘Niggerhead,’” but it’s unclear whether or for how long people on campus referred to the boulder that way. The term itself appears to have fallen out of common usage by the 1950s.
Yet, while the rock itself is blameless, the cultural associations with it are enough for some to call for its removal.
Every year, students in Professor Shanan Peters’ geoscience class visit Chamberlin Rock to gain a deeper understanding of Earth history, space and time. But removing the rock would represent one tangible action the university could take to improve the racial climate on campus, Peters said.
“Clinging to legacies that are scars on our past, like slavery, the oppression of women and the patriarchy, have held progress at bay forever, and hopefully this pandemonium addresses at least some of those,” Peters said. “We can move it and find the same information in better ways.”
In a pair of recent statements, one in response to the demand to remove the Lincoln statue and the other detailing university efforts to improve the campus climate, Chancellor Rebecca Blank acknowledged the harmful history of racism on campus.
Blank’s blog post detailed plans to recruit more students and faculty of color, make the Our Wisconsin training required and commit $1 million in racial inequality research.
Although the university doesn’t plan to remove the Lincoln statue, Blank said the former president’s legacy “should not be erased but examined,” noting, for example, Lincoln signed into law the land grants that made public universities like UW-Madison possible. The university sits on land once occupied by the Ho-Chunk nation.
After meeting with Black Student Union leaders this summer, Blank said she did not oppose removing Chamberlin Rock and has asked the Campus Planning Committee, which oversees monuments on campus, to look into the matter. Blank is also exploring other ways Chamberlin can be remembered, university spokesman John Lucas said.
Newly appointed chief diversity officer Cheryl Gittens said critiquing and discussing the history of images and figures on campus helps make it feel more inclusive.
“We have to figure out the best ways to do that and to tackle those hard truths,” she said. “I see our campus doing that now, and we have to continue to be tireless in those conversations.”
Though attitudes about race can seem as fixed as a 70-ton boulder, student leaders are hopeful they can, if not move mountains, move at least a small part of one.
Students protest racism on UW-Madison campus (2016)
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