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Mercer to erect new statue celebrating diversity

The statue of Jesse Mercer, the founder and first president of the university, in the heart of campus.
The statue of Jesse Mercer, the founder and first president of the university, in the heart of campus.

Students walking between the Historic Quad and the Connell Student Center within the last few months have probably noticed an empty green space where the recently demolished Computer Science Building once stood. However, the 120-by-60 foot open area will not remain unused for long, because Mercer has a plan in store to celebrate the university’s history of promoting diversity.

In June 2020, the University’s Board of Trustees approved a proposal to install a sculpture at the heart of campus to commemorate Mercer’s racial integration in 1963 and to promote the institution’s commitment to diversity today, according to a press release.

“The sculpture is envisioned as a way to celebrate the remarkable story of Mercer’s integration in a way that highlights both how the students felt and what they did,” the press release said.

A committee of ten Mercerians has been tasked with selecting the winning applicant who then will design the sculpture.

The administration issued a Request For Qualifications (RFQ) in January, encouraging artists to submit their own concept ideas for the project. As listed in the RFQ, applicants are to include an outline for the sculpture, along with examples of previous work and documentation of their artistic qualifications. The only requirement is that it be a tribute to Mercer’s integration, so how to creatively express that will be left up to the chosen artist.

The due date for applications to be turned into Shawna Dooley, Associate Vice President for University Advancement, was February 15.

The selection committee, hand-picked by President Bill Underwood, consists of longtime faculty and alumni, as well as one current student. Notable members include Sam Oni, Mercer’s first Black student who enrolled in 1963; former university president and science building namesake R. Kirby Godsey; and December 2020 graduate Michaela Jones, among others, according to the Den.

“I really think the sculpture will have a prominent effect, being that it will be placed in a central location on campus. As the first Diversity and Inclusion officer here on campus, I really think it’s important that we celebrate and acknowledge our history as it relates to race relations and the fight for equality and justice,” said Ansley Booker, director of diversity and inclusion initiatives.

This spring semester, the committee will review each application, conduct interviews and determine a winner by the summer. With an artist and a vision for the final product laid out, construction will begin over the next year.

The completed sculpture is planned to be unveiled during a special dedication ceremony in the fall of 2022.

The goal of this initiative is to be a palpable reminder of the historic events that occurred at Mercer beginning in 1963. Prior to that year, Mercer only accepted white students. Despite the court rulings that all educational institutions should allow any qualified student to attend, regardless of their race, many universities in the South were slow to comply. Thus, Mercer became the first white institution to officially integrate, with Oni arriving on campus as the first Black student in September 1963, according to the “Remembering the Civil Rights Movement” page of Mercer’s website.

The university was no longer segregated, but students of color faced racism and discrimination once they arrived on campus. Soon after, more Black students matriculated, such as Cecil Dewberry, Bennie Stephens and Pearlie Toliver. Toliver is also a member of the sculpture committee.

Since then, the number of African-American students and other students of color has increased steadily. Today, over half of Mercer students, 52%, are from a racial minority, according to College Factual. Currently, 48% of the undergraduate student body is white, 31% is Black, and the remaining 21% are other races.

That’s well above other mid-sized liberal arts colleges in the South. According to College Factual, both Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville and Samford University in Birmingham are 83% white. Furman University in Greenville is 78% white, and both Belmont University in Nashville and Berry College in Rome are 80% white.

There are a multitude of other diversity initiatives for students to participate in prior to the sculpture’s completion, such as Mercer Firsts and the Minority Mentors Program.

The Cluster will publish more updates on the project as they become available.

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