Douglass sculpture, flags unveiled in RIT Student Union
Rochester Institute of Technology recently unveiled a sculpture of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and display of four cultural flags in the Student Alumni Union.
The sculpture was commissioned by RIT President David Munson and Keith Jenkins, vice president and associate provost for diversity and inclusion, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of RIT’s Black Awareness Coordinating Committee and to honor Douglass’ 200th birthday.
The statue was created by Olivia Kim, an adjunct professor in the College of Art and Design who teaches figure sculpture.
“The question for us was how to appropriately honor BACC, an organization built on a rich history of achievement, pride and unity,” Jenkins said. “I remembered that a bust of Frederick Douglass once sat in the Student Alumni Union as part of a BACC display. My recollection of the bust led to acknowledgement of the work of Olivia Kim.”
Kim made 13 bicentennial Frederick Douglass sculptures in 2018 for Rochester Community Television in less than seven months with the help of more than 150 volunteers, including many RIT community members.
“Through the art and science of body language, I have made a sculpture that expresses how Douglass’ many struggles forged a profound love for humanity,” Kim said. “He exemplifies our unity of spirit and our ability to find the truth within ourselves. His presence here is a reminder that our humanity is the true heart of all technology. As technology progresses, it must be kept in symbiotic harmony with all life. Our evolution is dependent upon holistic creativity whether it be in the form of thought, emotion or action.”
Munson noted that “Douglass’ relationship with the Rochester Athenaeum, and thus RIT, dates to the 1850s when he delivered a series of powerful anti-slavery speeches at Corinthian Hall. His most famous speech, ‘What to the Slave is the Fourth of July,’ was given from the stage of Corinthian Hall in the summer of 1852.
“Though early Rochester was known for supporting many reform causes, Douglass challenged his fellow residents to redouble their efforts to end slavery and racial injustice in America. Frederick Douglass’ relationship with RIT is also linked through his own granddaughter. Fredericka Douglass Sprague Perry took classes at the Rochester Athenaeum and Mechanics Institute in 1906.”
BACC first formed to increase representation on campus, build a strong voice for the African American student and educate the RIT community about Black culture. Now, the organization seeks to improve the overall image, mindset and college experience of the Black student at RIT.
“The unveiling of the Fredrick Douglass statue marks the beginning of a new future for Black students here at RIT, a future that recognizes them as critical for the success of the RIT and Rochester community,” said BACC President Jemieshaw Pierre-Louis, a fifth-year civil engineering technology student from Binghamton. “Furthermore, this statue will serve to expose and educate RIT students about Frederick Douglass, a famous orator that served as an abolitionist for our city.”
During a “Calls for Justice at RIT” interfaith vigil in response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery this past summer, Munson announced that four flags representing cultural and historical significance to RIT would be mounted in the SAU: the Haudenosaunee flag, Black Lives Matter flag, rainbow or pride flag, and Sign Union Flag.
RIT has displayed flags in the SAU to serve as a visual marker of its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion since April 14, 1994, when the International Flags Project was initiated as part of the “One World, One People” conference sponsored by RIT’s Student Government. The purpose of the project was to serve as a visual welcome to the international student population. The flags are changed each year to represent the country of each international student.
“We are at a pivotal time in history, here at RIT, in Rochester, the country and the world,” said Sandra Johnson, senior vice president for Student Affairs. “Our mission calls out our responsibility to create a culture where diversity, equity and inclusion is woven into all that we do. That means we must actively work to remove systemic barriers in our programs, processes and policies.”