UWL’s extensive history with racism


UWL students dress up as KKK members for Halloween. Image retrieved from UWL’s 1979 Yearbook.

Julia Balli, General Assignment Reporter

The University of Wisconsin – La Crosse has a history that many are proud of, but a trip to Murphy Library’s Archives shows UWL’s history is also imbedded in racial discrimination.  

UWL’s yearbooks, particularly in the late 1970s and early 1980s, are littered with photos displaying racism in many forms. In the 1979 and 1980 UWL yearbooks, UWL students in photos celebrate Halloween in black face. In the 1981 and 1982 UWL yearbooks, UWL students in photos waving the confederate flag with pride, while parading downtown or celebrating. 

Before UWL’s Eagle mascot, they were known as the UWL Indians. In 1989, the La Crosse Tribune covered the debate of mascot change and published a picture of a man defending UWL’s mascot that had been established for decades. When UWL Student Senate voted to change the name, they faced backlash from many students. Four UWL students received over 500 signatures to stop the name change and presented it to the Student Senate, in hopes they would appeal it, according to the La Crosse Tribune. 

In 1983, the basketball program was experiencing major repercussions when UWL’s internal investigation committee released a report revolving around discrimination. The report indicated that the UWL athletic program had “a deep and widespread perception that the basketball program discriminates against minorities,” and called for increased funding for minority recruitment, under threat to “discontinue their activities and funding,” according to the UWL Internal Investigation Committee. 

Despite actions taken to educate and prevent future events like this from happening, some incidents still occur in UWL’s recent history.  

In 2015, a construction worker displayed a Confederate flag on the grill cover of a semi-tractor parked on the student center construction site at UWL. Many complaints were filed to the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Paula Knudson and the incident caused a campus-wide discussion involving racism, according to the La Crosse Tribune. 

In 2016, an incident occurred where students had drawn a black man being lynched by three men in white hoods accompanied by a drawing of a swastika and the words “#blacklivesdon’tmatter on a white board in Coate Hall. In the 2015-2016 school year there were 165 hate/bias incidents, according to UWL Campus Climate. 

UWL Assistant Director of the Office of Multicultural Student Services Thomas Harris, said, “I worked in residence life for the first 10 years that I was here. There were many incidents where derogatory stuff was written on white boards and the walls depicting discriminatory words and drawings.”  

In response to these events, UWL held three events relating to racism, hatred, and bias on campus. The programs were meant to teach students about racism and lead to discussion.  

“We are always trying to do all we can to promote a welcome and inclusive environment,” said UWL Chancellor, Joe GowIn particular, we are actively working to increase the number of traditionally underrepresented students, faculty, and staff on our campus.  

In the 2018-2019 school year, there have been over 150 incidents of hate and bias so far. According to UWL Campus Climate73 out of 150 hate and bias reports were made in residence halls. 

A study conducted in 2017 by a Lee Vang a UWL graduate student seeks to understand how racial discrimination of students of color on a predominantly white campus has affected their mental health. Four anonymous UWL students were interviewed about racial discrimination they experienced at UWL.  

The study concluded that the discrimination the students had faced, “occurred in subtle forms and participants were unaware of the encounters until after the fact … Participants defined racial discrimination experiences as being treated differently based on their skin color, race, or ethnicity,” wrote Lee.  

UWL Archivist, Laura Godden said, “Much like the entire country, discrimination issues at UWL have been complex and multifaceted. Discrimination envelops all aspects of our society, so it is not surprising that it has been an issue at UWL since its very founding. The roots of this likely stem both from the larger society, and the city which surrounds it.” 

“While we are talking about all this bad stuff, there are good things happening on campus at the same time,” said Harris.  

This last week UWL hosted its annual Social Justice weekaccording to the UWL website“to create and support a community of scholars committed to social justice research; to engage and mentor students who are interested in pursuing social justice research and/or careers in social justice fields; and to form partnerships with social justice organizations in the La Crosse community.”  

“Leaders in this area can do more. UWL is ahead of a lot of places with some of the structures in place, but we still have a long way to go,” said Harris.