EXCLUSIVE: UW-Madison to relocate historical Chamberlin Rock even after school officials confirm that no racist background exists

One University official described the accusations in 2020 as 'inaccurate' evidence of racism.

There is no hard evidence that one journalist's description of the rock reflected the University's opinions or policies.

After multiple complaints of racism, Chancellor Rebecca Blank of the University of Wisconsin-Madison will relocate the historic Chamberlin Rock to an off-campus site. 

The Chamberlain Rock was named after former university president and geologist T.C. Chamberlin and is currently sits on Observatory Hill at UW-Madison. The claims of racism are based on one disputed reference to the geological structure in a historical newspaper that used a racial slur.

In emails obtained by Campus Reform from June 5, the Wisconsin Black Student Union (WBSU) sent a list of 4 demands to the Deans of multiple departments including the law school, the Academic Program Director, Chancellor, and the Dean of Students. 

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The 2020 emails were obtained through a public records request.

The WBSU said in their email that “As a Black student organization, having to write this letter hurts. It hurts to watch our people murdered, in cold blood, by the people who swore, right hand to the Bible, to protect and serve us.” 

“UW-Madison, you are not doing enough...We call you out to truly make this a more inclusive environment for black students by doing the following.” 

One demand called for removing Chamberlin Rock, which the students are alleging had been formerly known as “N*****head Rock.” 

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The term “N*****head” has been used to describe many geological structures, including black rocks or stones, knotted roots in swamps and varying species of plants. Prior to 1950 the term was also used in several U.S. patents for mechanical inventions.

Following the June 5 email, an anonymous student emailed Chancellor Blank one day later saying, “As a privileged white student, I hope that I can use my voice to advocate for my Black classmates.”

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Describing an incident in which she was the only girl in an engineering class, she said, “That was a one-time incident. It made me realize that this must be how Black Students feel at our campus EVERY SINGLE DAY. For these reasons, I urge you to listen to the demands of the Black Student Union.”

Several declarations of ‘solidarity’ were sent by students and community members at the school, including a July 14 email from Cristina Johnson, the Assistant Director of Civic Engagement and Communications.

Seven members of the UW-Madison and Morgridge Center for Public Service faculty signed the July 14 email. 

“As a team of staff committed to anti-racist work at UW, we are asking for you to lead the UW System and this state by taking bold moves that take the experiences of Black students seriously,” the document stated.

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Johnson’s statement also includes the original list of demands from the WBSU and further urges the school to take “substantive action.” 

Director of Campus Planning & Landscape Architecture Gary A. Brown wrote in a July 16 email that following a discussion with the chancellor, he would be assembling a small team to provide recommendations on a new location for the plaque attached to Chamberlin rock. He added a brief history of the “issues surrounding the rock and its unfortunate reference.” 

The research on Chamberlin Rock’s history was provided by Daniel Einstein, the Historical and Cultural Resources Manager in the university’s campus planning & landscape architecture department. Einstein said he is “unaware that the university has ever used the reference ‘N*****head’ to describe Chamberlin Rock.”

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A 1925 news article used the term as a description of the rock, he said, but neither the memorial nor its plaque was mounted at that time.

Aaron Bird Bear, tribal relations director at the school, has been sharing the 1925 news article during some of his First Nations Cultural Landscape tours; the Isthmus published an article in 2018 repeating these notions.

“The term ‘N*****head’ was a common reference to objects that protruded from the ground (outcrops, stumps etc.) It was also used to reference plants, clothing, mountain ranges and Texas hunting camps,” Einstein wrote.

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”It appears,” he continued, “that the student is referencing inaccurate news stories and concluded that the Chamberlin Rock may have once been designated by the university with an offensive racial term.”

“What seems to be the case is that a local news reporter (or editor?) used a common (and inappropriate) term to describe a partially submerged glacial erratic, in a “catchy” headline.”   

On September 21, Einstein emailed the Office of the Provost’s Chief of Staff, Eden Inoway-Ronnie, to further explain the rock’s history. He explained that Birdbear “supports keeping the rock for its cultural landscape and teaching values.” Einstein also said that Birdbear highlights the 1925 article in his tours to showcase “how far we (society) have come from a time when this sort of language would be printed in a city newspaper.” 

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“Students may have interpreted the article as somehow representing a university statement/position/tradition, but this is NOT how Aaron presents it,” Einstein wrote. “I think that the students making the demand to remove Chamberlin Rock have a responsibility to provide evidence to support their assertion that the university somehow has been responsible for creating/supporting/celebrating a racist artifact. No such evidence-other than a 1925 newspaper article over which the university had no control-has been cited by the students.”

Similarly, on November 19 Gordon Medaris, an emeritus professor of igneous and metamorphic petrology, emailed Chancellor Blank regarding possible plans to remove the Chamberlin Rock. 

“In my 54 years in the Department of Geoscience (32 as a Professor and 22 as a Professor Emeritus), I have never once heard Chamberlin Rock referred to as a ‘n*****head,’” Medaris stated.

He emphasized that the rock is a “valuable geological resource.” 

A community member making similar complaints emailed the university pointing out that other publications, specifically the book “To Build a Fire,” uses the phrase “n*****head” to describe terrain. “If we remove a rock because of a 1925 publication, will we also remove Jack London’s short story ‘To Build a Fire’ from print because he used the phrase and published it in a story in 1902?” The individual wrote, “The obvious question is ‘where will it all end?’” 

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The Facilities Planning and Management division at UW-Madison issued a formal statement to the community on December 15, outlining 3 possible options for removing the Chamberlin Rock from campus. The options involved breaking up the rock into pieces and disposing of the remains, relocating the rock to an off-campus site and burying the rock on Observatory Hill. 

On December 28, Gary Brown submitted the official decision of the Campus Planning Committee to the Chancellor. The relocation of Chamberlin Rock to an off-campus trail was decided in a vote of 12 supporting, 1 opposing and 2 absents. 

Chancellor Blank signed an official notice of acceptance on January 4 this year for the relocation of Chamberlin Rock to the National Park Service’s Ice Age Trail. 

“I accept the recommendation of the Campus Planning Committee (CPC), passed on December 17, 2020, regarding the relocation of what is currently known as Chamberlin Rock,” Blank said, “I would also like FP&M to work with the CPC to create a new plaque that will honor President Chamberlin’s legacy and to propose an appropriate location for that plaque.” 

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As Campus Reform previously reported, the removal was estimated to cost between $30,000 to $75,000. The office of the chancellor stated in a November 19 email that the rock’s removal would be “carried out using private gift funds.”

Meredith McGlone, Director of News & Media Relations, told Campus Reform that “Chancellor Blank approved the relocation of the rock after hearing from Black student leaders about the harm caused by the rock’s association with a racial slur. Removing the rock as a monument in a prominent location prevents further harm to our community while preserving the rock’s educational and research value for current and future scholars.”