The Chamberlin Rock has long been viewed by University of Wisconsin–Madison students as a controversial reminder of a racist past. Since 1925, the rock had been perched atop Observatory Hill. It was given a highly offensive nickname that included a racial slur in a newspaper headline that same year. At the time, any large, dark rock would be referred to by the derogatory nickname.
The rock was removed from campus under the direction of the Wisconsin Black Student Union and the Native American student group Wunk Sheek. The main campus of UW-Madison is located on Ho-Chunk ancestral territory.
Students testified that the rock’s ongoing presence served as a daily reminder of the discrimination that students of color had historically experienced on campus. Rebecca Blank, the chancellor, accepted the committee members’ request to take the rock off campus.
Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Lori Reesor said, “It took courage and commitment for the Wisconsin Black Student Union to bring this issue forward and to influence change alongside UW’s Wunk Sheek student leaders, in the midst of demands for justice following George Floyd’s murder last summer, the students wanted updates on campus, and they worked hard to see this through. While the decision required compromise, I’m proud of the student leaders and the collaboration it took to get here.”
One of the students who watch is UW-Madison senior Nalah McWhorter, who was president of the Wisconsin Black Student Union for the 2020–21 academic year watched as a crane hoisted the boulder out of the ground.
Here’s what McWhorter said:
“It was very meaningful for me to be there and to see the process all the way through to the end, it was about a year ago that we released our demands and met with the chancellor and explained to her why those demands meant so much to us. It was a powerful moment today to see this demand come full circle.”
“I see this as offering the next generation of students something to build off of,” she said. “We got this project going, and now the next round of students can continue to work on the other demands and come up with other ideas. We hope this movement and this momentum carries on.”
The rock is a big, uncommon specimen of a glacier erratic from the pre-Cambrian period that is most likely over two billion years old. In recognition of Thomas Chamberlin, a renowned geologist and former president of the University of Wisconsin from 1887 to 1892, it has been designated as a monument on campus.
The rock’s plaque commemorating Chamberlin has been taken down. The rock will no longer be known by this term; instead, it will be called a glacial erratic. On Chamberlin Hall, a new plaque will be erected in his honor.
The rock has been relocated to university-owned land near Lake Kegonsa, southeast of Madison. The location is surrounded by a glacial till.
“Moving the rock to this remote site prevents further harm to our community while preserving the rock’s educational and research value for current and future scholars,” said Gary Brown, director of campus planning and landscape architecture, who led the search for the rock’s new location. “Students and the general public will no longer casually encounter the rock, but it will remain available to those specifically seeking it out for teaching and learning purposes.”