ONEONTA, N.Y. — When a Black Lives Matter mural in front of a small liberal arts college was spray-painted to read “white lives matter,” an assemblage of college students countered with a message of their own.
“Hate has no home here,” declares the stone wall facing the intersection of West and Center streets, in bold blue lettering.
The wall that retains the lawn at the base of Hartwick College’s hillside campus is frequently painted by sororities, sports teams and other student groups, sometimes in different sections at a time. In recent months, it has advertised activities at Oneonta’s teen center, listed fundraising information for the Hartwick College women’s rugby team, honored graduating seniors and even served as a marriage proposal.
Though painters of the wall abide by an unwritten agreement to let each iteration stand for at least 24 hours, a mural reading “Black Lives Matter” stood for several months. In late February, when generations of paint caused the wall’s facade to peel away, the Black Lives Matter message was restored.
Emma S. Reilly, a sophomore from Pennsylvania, said she was driving to Dunkin’ with a swimming teammate Saturday morning when they noticed the messy “white lives matter” message.
“I almost didn’t see it at first,” she said. “They really took the time to paint over ‘Black’ with black paint and then try to paint ‘white’ in white paint to match the other lettering.”
Reilly said she and teammate Natalie Harkonen sought permission from college administrators to paint over what they described as a message of hate and were given the go-ahead within an hour.
“This was something everyone wanted to fix immediately,” said Harkonen, a junior from White Lake, Michigan.
Administrators at the college with an enrollment of about 1,200 provided money for students to purchase the supplies. Harkonen said they opted for glow-in-the-dark paint and top-to-bottom block lettering “to make it as hard as possible to cover up again.”
Harkonen and Reilly said they were met at the wall by several other students intent on purchasing their own supplies to redo the mural.
About a dozen students finished the job in less than three hours, Harkonen said.
“We probably could have finished it sooner, but we wanted to make sure it was just as crisp and clean as the original.”
Ownership of the wall has long been disputed. Largely believed to be city property, the wall has passed ownership between Oneonta and New York State Electric & Gas, which operates an underground utility line in the vicinity. The college also denies ownership.
Hartwick College President Margaret Drugovich addressed the vandalism in a campus-wide email over the weekend, thanking the students for their work.
“I have heard from a number of students and employees today about how concerned they are about this intentional dismissal of the historic marginalization of the Black community,” she wrote. “As a member of this community and the president of the college I share their concern. Black lives do matter. We must continue to say it until it no longer needs to be said.”
Lee Fisher, president of the Oneonta chapter of the NAACP, said the “white lives matter” message was unsurprising. “People have always tried to cover up the history of Black Americans — just like they did the wall,” he said.
Fisher said things won’t get any better unless people take the time to understand Black history and “what’s really going on in this country.” He commended the quick actions of the Hartwick students and the support from several members of the wider community.
“It’s going to be a battle, and we have to be resilient. You have to be tough-skinned and keep moving forward,” he said. “Hate is a terrible thing, but no matter what you try to do, Black lives will still matter. There are still people who rise to the top.”
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