Former WBSU President calls Chamberlain Rock removal “a small step” for change at UW

A construction worker removes Chamberlain Rock on the morning of Friday, Aug. 6, 2021.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison removed a rock struck with the symbolism of a painful and racialized history on Friday, Aug. 6. Formerly known as Chamberlain Rock, the rock had been located on Observatory Hill since 1925. The 42-ton boulder was referred to as “n*****head rock” in a newspaper headline from the Wisconsin State Journal in 1925. The slur was commonly used during the 1900s as a derogatory term towards African Americans.

The Wisconsin Black Student Union in partnership with Wunk Sheek worked for nearly a year to get the removal of the rock approved as it sat on ancestral Ho-Chunk land. Former President of the Wisconsin Black Student Union Nalah McWhorter and former Vice President Nzinga Acosta led the organization in its fight against racism on campus, stemming from four set demands developed by the organization to add to the demands made in response to the #SICofUW protest in 2019 and the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020.

McWhorter, along with a small group of Wisconsin Black Student Union members, regarded the rock removal as a small step in the right direction in the fight for Black students on UW-Madison’s campus. 

“Stepping into my role for the Wisconsin Black Student Union, I knew there was something we had to do, a statement we had to make on this campus,” McWhorter said. “We drafted four demands that we thought were very impactful for this campus right now. These are not long-term goals, this is stuff we want to see happen right now.” 

McWhorter said their ultimate goal was to hold the university accountable for supporting their Black population of students and their need for an inclusive campus. 

“It’s time for the university to hold itself accountable for the non-inclusive environment they have on campus and this [rock removal] shows the students they need to be more aware of what happens on campus. A lot of people didn’t know what this rock meant and the impact it had until WBSU made a little bit of noise behind it,” McWhorter said. 

In the wake of the rock removal, McWhorter and the Wisconsin Black Student Union’s social media accounts have experienced an influx of harassment from those who aren’t in support of the rock’s removal.  

“We’re not playing anymore, we’ve taken what y’all have thrown at us for long enough. This is something we’re very serious about and it shows how much more work still needs to be done. When you see the articles, the posts and people under the comments you just see how much more work has to be done.” 

The Wisconsin Black Student Union says they will continue to give students the platform to use their voice to make change on campus. The Black Lives Matter movement and the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor aided the organization in their process of developing the four demands to make UW-Madison tolerable for all students, without the reminder of racist events.

“Change can happen, it may not happen right away but as long as you stand firm in what you want and the voice that you have, change can definitely happen,” McWhorter said. “This rock being removed is a small step because the university has a lot more that needs to be done when it comes to diversity and race.”

McWhorter hopes to see more momentum stemming from the demands from other organizations ran by students of color. While the rock has been relocated near Lake Kegonsa on university property for further preservation, students no longer have to engage with the painful past behind the rock. 

The next generation of students, McWhorter believes, must continue to use their voices, stand up for what they believe in and be brave enough to take things to administration to voice their needs and feelings about campus. By furthering the work of the generation before us, McWhorter said the university will always feel the need for change. 

“Never stop applying pressure to the things that need to be done. Our voice has so much power. This was just an idea, something we put on paper a year ago. Keep demanding, the reason we have a Black Cultural Center is because of a demand, this rock is gone because of a demand. While it might sound far-fetched now, but as long as you keep pushing and getting people to rally behind you it is possible.”

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