CAMDEN, NJ — Create an online hub of the history and proposed changes surrounding Rutgers-Camden’s public symbols and monuments. Host more town halls to gain an array of feedback from students, residents and other stakeholders. Consider moving controversial artworks to campus galleries.

These were some suggestions put forward by Camden residents and local leaders Wednesday night as the university held its first virtual community member meeting focused on the schools’ Walt Whitman statue and mosaic frieze. The school previously held similar meetings with students and alumni. 

Both public symbols drew discussion earlier this over what they represented and spurred two petitions that have together garnered over 4,000 signatures. 

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The mosaic frieze, entitled “America Receiving the Gifts of a Nation,” is located at Johnson Park on the Rutgers’ campus. Although it was draped over by the university in June, the mosaic displays Christopher Columbus and indigenous people in subservient positions. It was called racist by some residents, while others fought for it to be “properly contextualized” and stand as is. 

Walt Whitman, and the statue that stands prominently in front of the university’s student center, is meant to pay homage to the poet’s expansive contributions to literature. He also has a Camden City connection, buying a home on Mickle St. in 1884 - in which he lived in until his death eight years later. 

Still, Whitman, as noted during the meeting, was also known for having made disparaging comments about the intellect of African Americans and is known to have made negative remarks about the quality of foreigners and immigrants entering the U.S. 

“He was a brilliant poet and there's no question about that, but he referred to Black people as ‘baboons’ and ‘wild brutes,’ and questioned their inclusion in the American body politic,” Derek Davis, of the Camden County Historical Society, said during the meeting. “I just think that we [need to] conceptualize what he stood for, at the time, set the record straight.”

Nyeema Watson, associate chancellor for Civic Engagement at Rutgers-Camden and host of the meeting, said the goal of these gatherings was to do just that.

Keith Green, an English professor and Director of Africana studies, co-chairs the committee on public art and history for Rutgers-Camden - made up of multiple subcommittees that is collecting questions and comments from Camden at large. 

The final decision over what will be done with the Whitman statue and the mosaic frieze will be made by Rutgers-Camden Interim Chancellor Margaret Marsh at the end academic year in 2021. 

A North Camden resident, who did not want to be identified, said she was troubled by the fact the chancellor would have the final say. Watson said, as the process is inclusive and will draw from a gamut of community voices, that in fact, it will be a decision that accounts for all involved. 

“We certainly will be sharing the outcomes of our recommendations, and the final recommendations as they are submitted to the chancellor…this is a year-long process, nothing has been etched in stone at this point,” Watson said.

Vedra Chandler, another participant Wednesday, asked, “Is there infrastructure for maintaining these [public symbols] or placing them somewhere else?”

“I don't know what we're gonna call it, but [it’ll] be somewhere we put the things that were artifacts that represent some part of our history, but we're making a statement that we're not necessarily holding them up,” she added.

Watson said that Rutgers indeed has the Stedman Art Gallery in Camden, as well as the Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick, at its disposal if that option was sought. 

“I also look around the country and see other institutions like the MoMA [Museum of Modern Art in New York], who's also considering art that has depictions of racial injustice…Is there the opportunity here to form a new kind of art by providing a super imposition of art on top of the mosaic,” said Quinn deMenna.

Green said that will be among the considerations, pointing to a $50,000 grant provided to the Institute for the Development of Education in the Arts (IDEA) to inspire residents and youth projects aimed at re-tooling the frieze. 

While the IDEA center received the grant and can provide feedback to Rutgers-Camden, the university will be the vehicle for which the decision of the public symbols is made, Watson said. 

“We’re really excited about creating solutions to re-imagine what could be seen on that campus and what Johnson center could turn into,” said IDEA’s Director and Founder Cynthia Primas, noting that making Johnson Park a more inviting place to the public is also part of the project’s goals. 

Wednesday’s meeting, which lasted roughly an hour and included over 30 participants, included other sentiments as well: members of the public should be part of the Rutgers-Camden committee charged with gathering feedback, outreach should be made for those who do not have internet access or computers and that as part of this conversation the school should be mindful of the openness of its campus.

Rutgers-Camden says it will announce if future public meetings will be held. 

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