‘Stumbling Blocks’ exhibit looks at U-M history


In the middle of the University of Michigan Diag, 950 empty folding chairs sit in neat, disjointed rows —10 chairs here, six chairs there — all empty and facing the Graduate Library.

At the Michigan Union, rules from 1920 specifying proper women’s behavior while in the building scroll in an endless, insulting loop across a digital zipper above the main entrance.

And every evening at dusk, the grand, be-columned facade of Angell Hall lights up with surveillance photos taken of students at a 1970 black-power protest.

They’re all components of “Stumbling Blocks,” an intriguing, pop-up exhibition in seven parts — organized by U-M Prof. Martha S. Jones with Prof. Matthew Countryman — that invites passers-by to consider “difficult moments” in the university’s history as it celebrates its bicentennial.

“Some schools like Yale,” said Jones, a professor of history and Afro-American and African Studies, “recently stumbled onto their own pasts in ways that have been difficult but important, and we wondered if we couldn’t take an affirmative look at some difficult moments in our past.”

Yale was embroiled the past year in a controversy over renaming its John Calhoun College, which honored the pro-slavery South Carolina senator who led the South into the Civil War. (Calhoun College will now be named for the pioneering computer scientist Grace Murray Hopper.)

“Stumbling Blocks” will be up through Saturday.

Countryman explained that the 950 empty chairs “represent the African-American, Latino and Native-American students who didn’t enroll in U-M because of the passage of Proposition 2 in 2006.”

That ballot proposal, overwhelmingly approved by voters, amended the Michigan Constitution to prohibit use of race in a variety of public areas, including admissions decisions at state schools.

Other elements of “Stumbling Blocks” highlight the overlooked role of Native Americans at the university, the ethics of biomedical research, the largely unacknowledged role played by U-M staff, and the two-edged nature of nuclear research on North Campus.

In the case of the Michigan Union, its rules a century ago specified women couldn’t use the front door — they had to come in the north entrance. Once inside, they were to be chaperoned by a male escort.

Furthermore, if they didn’t remove their hats during Union dances, among other offenses, they could have their visiting privileges permanently revoked.

It wasn’t until 1956, Jones says, that women could enter the Union through the front door. Even then, vestiges of male privilege barred women from the billiards room until 1968.

Reading the explanatory sign in front of the Union, Ypsilanti resident Stephani West — who’s still figuring out where she wants to apply to college — shook her head.

“It makes me want to flip someone off,” she said. “Like seriously — women have to be ‘properly chaperoned?’ How dare you?”


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‘Stumbling Blocks’

Through Saturday

University of Michigan Central Campus & North Campus

futureuniversitycommunity. umichsites.org/stumbling-blocks