The Legacy of Southwestern's History

Southwestern is proud to say that it is Texas' first university. This claim is based on the fact that Rutersville College was chartered by the Republic of Texas in 1840. Rutersville was one of the four root colleges that were eventually consolidated into Southwestern when it was founded in Georgetown in 1872.

When Southwestern tells its origin story, the main purpose is to reinforce that we have been around a long time and expect to be here for a long time to come. But this is a very selective way to look at its origins.

Southwestern's early history as an institution is inseparable from the history of settler colonialism and chattel slavery in Texas. Those systems denied the humanity of indigenous people and people of African descent, but also reinforced the Anglo belief that Mexican people also did not have a legitimate claim to belong in Texas.

The outcome for those centered by these two systems of domination and erasure was that Anglos in Texas felt that they deserved the benefits that were structurally bestowed upon them by these systems. In terms of Southwestern's history, it meant that the University was set up by and for White people, specifically the Anglo Christian male elite in Texas.

Until the 1980s, Southwestern included a very narrow range of people, and excluded a lot more. It served mainly Texas students and was mainly known only in Texas. Before the school was integrated in the late 1960s, none of those students were Black. All but a handful of Latina/o/x and Asian and Asian-American students were White or White-passing, and almost everyone was Methodist. Until the last decade, few students and even fewer faculty or staff openly self-identified as LGBTQIA+.

Since its early years in Georgetown, Southwestern has enrolled both men and women, but in ways that segregated men from women students in separate and mostly unequal spheres, both literally and figuratively. These separate systems for men and women reflected and reinforced patriarchal, heteronormative, and cis-normative ideologies. It encoded assumptions about how students should conduct themselves, who they should live with, who they could affiliate with and why and how, and even what they should study and aspire to become.

These structurally embedded assumptions about gender and sexuality not only reinforced the gender binary, but centered maleness. Looking at the past, this centering of maleness and othering of femaleness is most evident in the naming of the first building built on this campus, the Ladies Annex. Looking at the present, it is still evident in the fact that there are fraternity houses on campus and no sorority houses.

From the 1980s into the early 2000s, Southwestern’s student body was slowly diversified racially, ethnically, religiously, and regionally. Also in the 1980s, structures of gender segregation in residence halls and in student conduct policies also slowly began to be dismantled.

Over the last 15 years, Southwestern’s student body has become significantly more diverse. In 1980, less than 10% of Southwestern students identified as people of color. It took 25 more years to double that number to 20% by 2005.

Today, around 40% of Southwestern students identify as Black, Hispanic or Latina/o/x, Asian, Asian-American, Pacific Islander, or Native American. One in five students now identify as first-generation. Latina/o/x students now consistently represent over 25% of Southwestern’s total student body, and Southwestern has recently been designated a Hispanic-Serving Institution. There is a growing number of openly LGBTQIA+ students on campus. There also is a growing number of students who identify as Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu, and many who do not identify as religious at all.

While the demographics have changed fairly rapidly, the culture has been slower to change. Being in the cultural majority gives people in the cultural majority a sense of belonging and inclusion while implicitly and explicitly denying it to anyone presumed to be outside the cultural majority.

That persistent dynamic of centrality and marginalization is reflected in many ways on campus. It is visible in the kinds of people centered and marginalized in institutional stories and the curriculum.

This website aims to show how it also is replicated in the kinds of people centered and marginalized in the commemorative landscape.

To learn more about the background, context, and purpose of the Placing Memory project, follow the links below:

Behind the Scenes of the Research

Southwestern's Dominant Institutional Saga

Scholarly and Cultural Context

About the Placing Memory Project