Art Student’s Segregated Bathrooms Create Furor at SUNY Buffalo

An art project outrages some Buffalo students.

Bob Adelman, Louisiana. Clinton. 1964. Segregated bathrooms in the city courthouse. Photo: © Bob Adelman/Magnum Photos.
Bob Adelman, Louisiana. Clinton. 1964. Segregated bathrooms in the city courthouse. Photo: © Bob Adelman/Magnum Photos.
Ashley Powell installed segregation signs at the University at Buffalo for her controversial art project. Photo: Micah Oliver.

Ashley Powell installed segregation signs at the University at Buffalo for her controversial art project.
Photo: Micah Oliver.

Students at the University of Buffalo were shocked to find an ugly reminder of the Jim Crow era last week, in the form of “White Only” and “Black Only” signs placed near campus bathrooms and water fountains. The police received 11 complaints about the apparent racist display, only to later learn that the signs were an art piece by graduate fine arts student Ashley Powell.

“It brought up feelings of the past of a past that our generation has never seen which I think is why it was so shocking for us to see,” Micah Oliver, president of Buffalo’s Black Student Union told ABC 27.

Powell, who is black, admitted to installing the signs when asked during a special meeting of the Black Student Union to address the unsettling incident.

Bob Adelman, <em> Louisiana. Clinton. 1964. Segregated bathrooms in the city courthouse</em>. Photo: © Bob Adelman/Magnum Photos.

Bob Adelman, Louisiana. Clinton. 1964. Segregated bathrooms in the city courthouse.
Photo: © Bob Adelman/Magnum Photos.

In a letter published by the Spectrum, the University at Buffalo’s independent student publication, Powell acknowledged that the signs were “problematic in light of recent events on other campuses where actual acts of hatred, misogyny, and racism occurred.” She apologized for “the extreme trauma, fear, and actual hurt and pain these signs brought about.”

She continued, “This project, specifically, was a piece created to expose white privilege. Our society still actively maintains racist structures that benefit one group of people, and oppress another.”

Protest march against the segregation of U.S. schools. Photo: National Archives, via Wikimedia Commons.

Protest march against the segregation of U.S. schools.
Photo: National Archives, via Wikimedia Commons.

Powell believes that her signs were a physical manifestation of what has become a hidden but still all­-too-­real system of oppression. Based on reactions at the Black Student Union meeting, her peers were less than appreciative of the project. “I respect you as an artist,” Jefry Taveras told Powell during the meeting, according to the Spectrum. “But you should know racism isn’t art, it’s a reality, and traumatizing.”

On Friday, the University of Buffalo released a statement regarding the art project and the questions it raised: “The university is encouraging our community to discuss how we negotiate the boundaries of academic freedom in a safe and inclusive environment that values freedom of expression and further builds a culture of inclusion.”

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