At the centerpiece of Deyane Moses’ exhibit is a shocking image: a racist caricature of a black employee of the Maryland Institute College of Art from the early 1900s. More shocking: It ran in the school’s yearbook.
As schools across the United States are grappling with their own racist legacies, a student’s exhibit at MICA is confronting ugly truths of the storied Baltimore art school’s legacy. On Thursday, the school’s president Samuel Hoi publicly apologized for the school’s long history of barring black students.
“MICA as an institution — represented by its president, vice presidents and board of trustees — apologizes for its historical denial of access to talented students for no other reason than the color of their skin, and for the hardships to those who were admitted but not supported for their success,” Hoi said in the memo.
The president was moved to apologize for the policy after his visit to photography student Moses’ senior thesis project exhibit “Blackives,” which included a demonstration on campus Thursday.
On Thursday morning, Moses staged a demonstration at the school called “Take Back the Steps.” The event remembered a would-be pupil named Robert H. Clark, who applied to MICA on Feb. 21, 1896, but was barred from attending because he was black. Defiant, Clark and his father marched up the steps of the school to demand that the school reconsider. But they were turned away.
Until the 1950s, MICA barred black students from attending.
“They’ve been shut out,” Moses said.
On one wall of Moses’ one-room exhibit hang photos of current students of color at the school, whom Moses interviewed about their experiences of being minority students at the majority-white art school in Bolton Hill. Many, Moses said, felt underrepresented and undersupported at the school.
Along with the exhibit, Moses, who will graduate this year, built the Maryland Institute Black Archives, which uses the school’s records and other primary source archives to reconstruct the “largely invisible presence of black artists” at MICA, according to the project’s online platform.
Hoi described the apology published on the college’s website as an effort to “own and confront” the school’s racist past.
“An institutional acknowledgment in the form of an apology, no matter how sincere, is empty unless it is rooted in a systemic commitment for change and unless it represents meaningful action that is in progress,” Hoi said.
The memo goes on to detail some of MICA’s racist history, dating to the 19th century.
In 1891, MICA was forced “by legal appointment” to admit its first African-American student, Harry T. Pratt, to the school. The enrollment was “met with protests by the MICA board and led to reportedly 100 students dropping out (very significant for a much smaller MICA at the time)” the memo states.
After Pratt’s graduation, the college adopted a policy in 1895 restricting enrollment to only white students. The policy remained in place until 1954, when the MICA board unanimously decided to open admission to all races, the memo states.
MICA was not the only area school to exclude blacks. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who grew up in Baltimore, was denied admission to the University of Maryland in 1930 because of his race. He attended Howard University instead, and would go on to help overturn the legalized segregation of schools in Brown v. Board of Education. It was that decision in 1954 that prompted MICA’s board to vote to allow all races.
Recently, universities across the country have begun to reckon with their own histories. Georgetown University formally apologized in 2017 for an 1838 sales of 272 slaves that benefited the Washington school.
Some grapple with racist photos of students in blackface surfacing from yearbooks. In Maryland, a number of such photos have surfaced in old University of Maryland, College Park yearbooks. University of Maryland President Wallace Loh called the images “profoundly hurtful and distressing.”
Hoi, who was appointed in 2014, said in his memo that the apology follows a Presidential Task Force report released in spring of 2018, examining how MICA can better address diversity, equity, inclusion and globalization.
Moses’ exhibit is extended beyond its original closing date and will be reinstalled in the Main Building on MICA campus, according to the university.
An Army veteran, Moses said her studies at MICA were made possible through the GI bill. She loves MICA and says it’s the only art school she ever wanted to attend.
Though Moses’ project has revealed many ugly truths about the institution, she said it’s fundamentally rooted in love. She compares her relationship to the school to one you might have with a friend who’s doing something wrong.
“You let them know, ‘I love you, but it’s time to change.’ ”