By Hayley Meisel
On Thursday, February 27th, Tulane University blasted students an email notifying them of a startling discovery. The Victory Bell, a cherished staple of Tulane’s campus, had been discovered to have once served as a plantation bell. Signed by President Mike Fitts and Doug Hertz of the Tulane Board, the email states that Tulane has only just discovered the true origin of the Victory Bell as a plantation bell. On behalf of Tulane, the email states “we believe it is important to find a way to use this bell to further our knowledge and understanding of slavery and pursue a more just society.” Their action following the discovery was to immediately remove the bell for further research on its history and timeline. Students were only informed of its transport into “storage” in an undisclosed location and that a committee had been formed to toy with the idea of a replacement.
The email came as a shock to students with mixed feelings on the prompt removal of the bell. Tulane junior Zachary Knoop said that “leaving the bell up reminds us of the past. Removing the bell doesn’t remove what it symbolized to the past versus the present and future.” His point is mirrored in Tulane freshman Amit Jakob’s perspective that “those who forget history are doomed to repeat it and Tulane is seeking the easy way out of acknowledging the past.” It is clear that, despite the tumultuous and controversial history of the bell, some students take the stand that the bell should continue to remind us of the past and carry us into the future.
Every prospective student touring Tulane University takes the same route when getting their first glance of campus. They hit the LBC, The Commons, and Reilly to name a few pivotal Tulane hotspots. When taking a stroll down McAlister, there is never a missed opportunity to call out The Victory Bell. A Tulane staple, the Victory Bell is rung twice a year; once at convocation and once at commencement. It is said that if you rub the bell following convocation, you are granted four years of good luck. These four years coincide with the four undergraduate years a student will spend at Tulane. Other than its genie-like abilities, the bell has always stood tall outside of McAlister Auditorium, watching over students passing by as they head to-and-fro class and events on campus.
While the bell itself is mentioned to have been casted in 1825, it was not donated to Tulane’s campus until 1960-61. Tulane’s own Executive Director of Public Relations Mike Strecker provided the information that the bell had originally been forged for Valsin Marmillion, a “cruel slave master” says his distant relative Norman Marmillion. Valsin owned the Columbia plantation in Edgard, Louisiana, about 40 miles away from Tulane, and the role of a plantation bell would have been to mark shift changes for the slaves on his plantation. The plantation was ultimately sold in 1888 and the Marmillion family took the bell with them for an uncertain amount of time until it landed in former Louisiana Governor Richard Leche’s hands. The interim period of the bell with the Marmillion family after the Columbia Plantation and before Leche had it in his possession is unknown. What is known is that Leche gifted the bell to Tulane in 1960-61.
When the bell joined Tulane’s campus in 1960-61, it was rung for the occasion of a winning basketball game, deriving its name as a Victory Bell, until being moved to the front of McAlister Auditorium in 2011. Its positive connotation on Tulane’s campus is the University’s number one reason for its prompt removal. As the letter reads, “Now that we understand its history as an instrument of slavery, continuing to use this bell in a celebratory manner would run counter to our values as a university community.” The symbolism that the bell has been bathed in by Tulane is seen as a harsh-counter to the reality of its origins as according to the University.
A further action that a group of students have taken to highlight exclusion and racism on Tulane’s campus is SOAR: Students Organizing Against Racism. Started at Tulane in 1999, SOAR serves as a “multiracial, multicultural organization dedicated to anti-racist organizing at an individual, institutional and cultural level.” Their largest annual event, typically held in March but cancelled this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, is a series of “Truth Tours” on Tulane’s campus. The purpose of these tours is to bring to light the history of racism across campus and the responses Tulane has taken over the years. One of the feature stops for this year’s tour would have been the spot where the bell has been removed from.
On the other hand, many students take the perspective of the University that the bell had no place on Tulane’s campus any longer. “I believe that Tulane has a complicated history with race and prejudice on its campus and leaving the bell up would have just been a bad look,” said Jackie Feldman, a senior at Tulane. She noted how the email states the bell’s history had been looked into by the Presidential Commission on Race and Tulane Values, a group formed by the school in 2015 to bridge together the student community. “The committee’s responsibility is to deal with matters such as these and I think their response is appropriate, at least for the time being” Feldman continued.
Tulane’s complicated unearthing of the history of the Victory Bell coincides with the city of New Orleans’ removal of various monuments after similar discoveries of controversial pasts. One in particular is the removal of the Robert E. Lee Monument. Widely disputed, many people argued that the monument, which stood for Confederate General Robert E. Lee, glorifed white supremacy, racism, and slavery in New Orleans. In 2017, the City Council voted to remove it and three other monuments across the city that caused a commotion of backlash from townspeople and people across the country. Many people had similar responses to the removal of these monuments as did to the removal of Tulane’s victory bell. One New Orleans resident, Sophia Harris, remembers the day the Lee Monument was taken down and the perspectives of her friends and neighbors.
“It’s hard to take a stand because one part of you wants to have these symbols of history but the other part knows that it represents such a dark time in our country” says Sophia. “The same goes for the Bell that did for these pieces throughout the city – does it stay or does it go? And ultimately it tends to go.”
Exactly four years ago in April 2016, Tulane came under fire when fraternity Kappa Alpha, which is still active on campus, built a wall of sandbags outside of their fraternity house spray painted with “Trump” and “Make America Great Again.” The response to the wall was overwhelmingly negative by students, faculty, and the general public as photos of the incident went viral online. Tulane KA argued that the wall is traditionally built by members pledging the fraternity for an annual capture the flag game. It was then unearthed that the “flag” used in the game represents the Confederate flag and that activity is an homage to Robert E. Lee himself. A section of the national Kappa Alpha website even praises Lee as an iconic figure the brothers of KA look up to.
KA wound up taking down the wall and have yet to repeat the incident in the years since. Tulane University’s Latinx student organization GENTE felt targeted by the slogans across the wall and in part helped the controversy gain national attention. Instead of calling to take the wall down, SOAR reported that they pointed out “the reason it evoked extreme pain for many students at Tulane.” Dusty Porter, Tulane’s Vice President of Student Affairs, met with members of Kappa Alpha following the incident but never reached out to those who felt affected by the wall such as GENTE. This is yet another example of Tulane attempting to take something down instead of reaching out to students who may have something to say on the matter.
The two perspectives taken by members of the Tulane community on the history and removal of the Victory Bell, which is such an iconic piece of Tulane’s campus and history, is inherent. While the removal of the bell has sparked controversy, it is clear that the University is doing what they can in order to provide a response that will benefit all students moving forward. Their transparency on the matter is just the beginning. The letter concludes that “the bell’s newly discovered past is a powerful reminder that the most tragic and painful elements of our nation’s history continue to echo through our communities. It is also a reminder that we must be ever vigilant, ever humble and ever open to examining our own beliefs and practices as we continue to foster a more inclusive community.” This message provides a promise to continue to honor on-campus inclusion and honesty. Jackie Feldman added that “what Tulane is doing is a viable option under the circumstances and it is clear that they are trying to be as transparent as possible for the time being.”
In the weeks and months to come, there will soon be a replacement memento that Tulane will install to welcome students into McAlister Auditorium and to serve as a new good luck charm to students both new and graduating. In the meantime, Tulane is still working to uncover as many details about the history of the Victory Bell that it can.