March 14, 2022

WISE-ROJAS | From “Plantations” to “Botanic Gardens” — Holding Cornell Accountable

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Content warning: This article includes discussions of racism, white supremacy and homophobia. 

When I was sitting in UNILWYL 1156: Queer Identities and Beyond, last semester, I was shocked to hear the words “Cornell Plantations” and learn about its history. At first, I thought it was one of those scenarios that was made up just to educate students. On the other hand, I wasn’t in total shock. Cornell is an Ivy. No matter how diverse, it’s still old and was founded by people who never had a minority’s interest at heart. The “Cornell Botanic Gardens” that I came to love — filled with fond memories of my time at Cornell over summer, exploring the beautiful gardens with my friends — suddenly became tainted. Ever since that day in class, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this. 

For Cornell’s administration and culture to honorably claim “the most diverse” title, Cornell should dedicate time, resources and money to educate people about their own history, particularly the bad parts that harmed marginalized people, such as the “Cornell Plantations.” “Any person, any study” only holds true if “any person” can feel safe and included; that’s the only way “any person,” regardless of color, can reap the benefits and privileges of an Ivy League education. 

Initially named the “Cornell Arboretum,” the garden was renamed the “Cornell Plantations” in 1944. The name didn’t change until 2016 when Black Students United urged the Board of Trustees to rename it to not make students feel unsafe. In a 2016 article from The Cornell Daily Sun, “Representatives of [the BSU] said, at the time, that they felt that the racial connotations associated with the word “plantation” serve to make Cornell an inhospitable space for minority students.”

I am a person of color, but I am not Black — I have the privilege of having light skin. Nevertheless, because of the labels I hold, I spend time with plenty of others who share my labels and hold others. Sitting in that classroom and hearing about the “Cornell Plantations,” I could tell that every single person in that classroom was uncomfortable. Most of us were LGBTQ+ identifying, a POC, and if not, were an ally. I’ve had my fair share of experiences trying to find how to fit in at a place like Cornell (read my column on that). Trying to fit in from an intersectional perspective is something I’ve spent my whole life doing, and it’s something I’ll continue to do. 

Doing research for this column made me angry and confused at moments. People don’t realize that saying that someone is “oversensitive” about a racial matter is a privilege within itself. Sure, the word “plantation” alone doesn’t mean there are enslaved people on the land at the moment, but it’s one of those terms that was most commonly used in connotation with slavery. 

Merriam Webster defines a plantation as “a usually large group of plants and especially trees under cultivation” or “a settlement in a new country or region.” As time went on, I don’t understand how no one raised any red flags about the impact of something as small as a name on a current or potential student. Plantation, after all, is a word that’s used on land where crops are sold. 

Nevertheless, no one was growing anything to sell for profit on the land of the Botanic Gardens. While some would say that the name of something like a garden doesn’t have any implications on student safety, most students of color would likely disagree. For instance, when students of color apply to college, they have to do extensive research on where is the safest place to be, what resources a school has, etc. 

I know I looked at schools in states where the “Gay Panic Defense” is illegal or in the process of being banned, because if someone killed me for my sexuality, I want to be able to get justice. I looked at which schools had Latinx communities and programs. Even if it doesn’t deter them from applying, any kind of discriminatory backdrop definitely impacts a students’ perception of a school, their performance and their willingness to learn. 

Imagine a Black woman, wanting to be the first in her family to go to college, is in the middle of writing her Cornell supplement when she comes across the “Cornell Plantations,” looking it up on Google Maps to confirm its existence. Considering the fact that the name wasn’t changed until 2016, there are probably plenty of students who didn’t apply to Cornell and plenty that are at Cornell but didn’t feel safe enough to thrive. 

Such a moment reminds me of an article I saw on my Instagram feed from the Harvard Crimson after my Harvard undergraduate interview; it was titled “The Crimson Klan,” featuring a black and white image of hooded men in KKK outfits posing in front of a statue at Harvard. Immediately, I felt sick to my stomach. I started to hope for a rejection from them, which I later received. 

I was terrified at the possibility that an institution could have such a racist and ignorant past and not acknowledge it. I failed to realize that despite being “the most diverse Ivy League school,” there is still hiding done to mask anything that made Cornell look like a perpetrator, choosing to portray Cornell as an institution whose privilege prevents administration and the culture from admitting wrongdoing towards marginalized students.  

Although commonly touted as one of the “most diverse Ivies” from its founding until today, Cornell doesn’t have the best track record of owning up to its historical downfalls which oppress marginalized students. It may be the one school among the eight Ivies to highlight both prestige and egalitarianism, where the “common person” can be admitted despite socioeconomic status; it doesn’t excuse Cornell from admitting to hiding evidence of historical oppression. 

Daniela Wise-Rojas ‘25 (she/her) is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. She currently serves as Assistant Dining Editor on the 140th Editorial Board. Anything But MunDANIties runs every other Monday this semester.