GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — While a majority of the public reaction was swift and critical of Stockton University’s decision to remove a bust of its namesake from the campus library, others in the community were happy to see the discussion over Richard Stockton’s past.
Kaleem Shabazz, Atlantic City councilman and president of the Atlantic City NAACP, agreed with the removal, although he admits he was not aware Richard Stockton was a slave owner.
“I think we have to confront slavery as an odious part of history. ... I think removing busts from public institutions is an acceptable thing we should do,” Shabazz said. “There is structural inequality, institutional racism and other things. We have to continue to move on, but yes, the statues have to go.”
The bust was removed Wednesday, and students and faculty were informed Thursday that the removal is temporary. The university plans to create a new exhibit to include the bust of Stockton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and also a slave owner, to add historical context.
By Friday, comments from social media and email mostly condemned the college’s decision.
“The people who now run Stockton are suffering from softening of the spine,” said Ed Swirsky, of Margate.
Donnetrice Allison, president of the Stockton Faculty Senate and the first woman and woman of color to hold the position, sees it as an opportunity to start a dialogue.
“What I think is good about all this is that it’s going to restart the conversation about where we want to go from here. It’s important that we build an honest exhibit that shows all sides of history,” she said.
Why the college’s Board of Trustees chose Stockton for its namesake is not clear. Robert Gregg, a historian of African American studies, said Richard Stockton wasn’t influential in South Jersey, but he believes the college was named for him due to Stockton’s association with Princeton University.
In Stockton’s 40th anniversary book, “Reaching 40,” the controversial history also is discussed.
“What was clear, however, was that no investigation was undertaken about any of the names offered and certainly not of Richard Stockton,” the book reads. “Moreover, the fact that the college was being established in the immediate aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement and at a time of growing awareness about the history of slavery in the United States would perhaps have led the board to shy away from Stockton, had they known that he had been an unrepentant slave owner.”
The institution changed its name from Stockton State College to The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey in 1993, with then-President Vera King Farris saying the change would bring various benefits, including putting more of an emphasis on the school’s namesake, according to The Press archives.
As to how the bust came to be, that’s also a little bit of a mystery. William Bearden, associate director for technical services at the Richard E. Bjork Library, said the bust came to the library in October 1995, when the expansion was complete. He believes it may have come from the president’s office, but was unsure. No one in the library was able to come up with a date of commission, dedication or donation of the bust, or who created it.
A 1989 obituary for Joanna Kendall, of Margate, names her as sculptor of the bust of Richard Stockton at Stockton State College.
Lori Vermeulen, vice president of academic affairs, provost and chemistry professor, said the the bust is currently in the Special Collections room in the library for safekeeping. The new exhibit location is not known yet, but she expects it to be in the library.
Publicist Sara Brady, who has extensive experience handling national and high-profile crisis communications, said Stockton seems to be moving in the right direction with its handling of the bust.
“Inaction can be interpreted as being tone-deaf,” Brady said. “It seems to be a thoughtful move that preserves the visibility of the statue and his background, but just removes it from what some might interpret as a celebratory position.”
She said an example of an overreach would be ESPN’s decision to remove the Asian American anchor named Robert Lee.
“There’s definitely a highly sensitized view of the nation’s attention right now to racism and antisemitism,” she said. “I think people are just trying to find the right balance and the right ways to represent history, but also to acknowledge that for a good portion of Americans, our history is offensive and painful. So how do you manage that? It’s still history.”
Staff Writer Maxwell Reil contributed to this report.