What the removal of the Hey Reb statue means — and doesn’t mean
Tonight, I take a walk I haven’t taken in a while. I park my car on University Avenue, just east of Maryland Parkway, and cross the street onto UNLV’s campus. I veer left in the parking lot and walk in front of the art building and follow the path as it bends right at the entrance to the Richard Tam Alumni Center. I have taken this walk hundreds of times in the last nine years, but I haven’t been here since April. Tonight, something is different. The pedestal in front of the alumni center has a clumsily placed tree pot on it. The Hey Reb statue is gone.
The recent decision to take down the Hey Reb statue comes amid the removal of Confederate monuments across the nation, and only after the resurfacing of conversations and critiques at UNLV that are as old as the mascot itself. In case you don’t know, Hey Reb is a rebel of the U.S. Confederacy. He was adapted in 1983 from UNLV’s original mascot, Beauregard, a wolf dressed in a Confederate soldier’s uniform. As a student, I of course loathed the mascot. I hated how long it had been allowed to remain the symbol of my university, which boasts the most diverse student body in the nation.
I’ve heard about the statue’s removal, but I want to see for myself. I take my headphones off because it feels darker than usual and something is unsettling me. It’s not just that I want to be sure I can hear the police approaching if they should pass by and consider me suspicious, though that is part of it. At night, UNLV can feel spooky, even haunted. Somehow, the absence of the statue makes me feel some other presence. I try to shrug off the jitters, but I remind myself that my fears aren’t entirely irrational.
It’s quite common for students or faculty to refer to the location of a class or event on campus as being on the “dark side.” The “dark side” refers to the side of campus north of Harmon, where the STEM and fine arts buildings are, along with the Cottage Grove parking garage. The density of trees and lack of light fixtures made it especially hard to see on that side of campus at night. Hence, dark side.
During my undergrad years, 2011-2016, there were a number of attacks on students walking on the dark side of campus at night, many of whom were women. The student government and student organizations lobbied for years to get more lights on campus, and in 2018 UNLV installed 19 high-tech light poles with cameras and police call boxes, with plans to eventually install 100. The community pressed its case over and over until the university finally responded and took action to protect its vulnerable students.
The Angelo and Frances Manzi Courtyard in front of the alumni center, where the statue used to stand and where I’m currently standing, is technically where the dark side and the rest of campus meet. It’s not as pitch black as “the dark side,” but the thing is — all of UNLV is pretty dark at night. The new light fixtures can’t really make me feel safe. They can’t erase the shared cultural memory students and faculty have of the attacks. And they certainly aren’t helping to dismantle rape culture, which is truly the root cause of the problem. Of course, they can’t do those things, they’re just lights.
Still, UNLV hasn’t just thrown its hands up and told its students that the problem is too big. The same semester they installed the call boxes, campus police also started offering a free women’s self-defense course every semester. UNLV police are also now available to escort folks to their car at night. They come to introductory classes to tell new students about apps like bSafe and other best practices for staying safe on campus at night. There’s so much that needs to be done, and a lot that might not be possible, but the university has made promises to invest in the long-term work that is necessary to ensure the safety of UNLV students.
I approach the pedestal and the tree pot. I want to sit at its base and think. But I can still imagine the Rebel statue, and I refuse to sit at the feet of a Confederate soldier, even the ghost of one. So I circle it. It takes less than 10 steps. I think of how small the statue really must be. To be gone all of a sudden, like it was never there. I think of how easy it was to remove the statue, and conversely how hard it will be to make UNLV feel safe, let alone welcoming, for its Black students. There are far too few Black studies courses and too few Black professors to teach them. There are too many police officers outside most major buildings on campus and at nearly every event, despite the size of attendance. There are periodically graffiti found in the library or student union that say “Kill the Blacks.” There was a statue of a Confederate soldier I passed every time I walked onto campus. They have painted his face all around UNLV, even on our clothes. From my first day here, there has always been something telling me I’m an unwelcome guest, that I should go.
So, what of all of this? What of the statue’s removal? What does it mean that UNLV has only now made the decision to remove Confederate imagery from its campus? What distinguishes this moment from the others in which the university was petitioned to address the problematic nature of the mascot? What does it say about the machinery of the university and its leadership that this level of oversight has been the standard? Where else and to whom has the university’s negligence done harm? How can that harm be addressed?
I don’t know all the answers. These questions are for the administration and leadership of UNLV. What I do know, though, is that the UNLV community — students, faculty, alumni, everyone — has to recognize that the removal of the Hey Reb statue, like the installation of the lights on campus, is only the beginning of a process of reckoning, not the culmination of one.
I slide my headphones back up over my ears and press play. I’m going to take another lap between the student union and The Flashlight before I head to my car. When I walk away from the pedestal, and the alumni center, I look back, trying to see if it’ll start to look normal, not like there’s a shadow of something there. I turn away without expectation. UNLV is still dark. It still feels haunted. I’m not sure when that will change.