Diverse narratives: Consider the Tulane Victory Bell

By standing in front of McAlister Auditorium, one can see almost half of Tulane’s campus. Across the green, you can see Newcomb, and to your left are the Business School and the Commons, and to your right are various dorms. Just a year ago you could also see one of Tulane’s famous landmarks, the Victory Bell that sat outside of the famous auditorium. Students walking down the always-bustling McAlister Place to get to class or their dorm might pass by this landmark multiple times in one day. Each year, as the new freshman class gathers at McAlister for convocation, they are encouraged to rub the Victory Bell to receive good luck for the next four years. Every Tulane campus tour would take time to stop in front of this bell to explain to the prospective students the significance and tradition behind the bell at the University. Tour guides used this bell as a tactic to sell Tulane as a school full of spirit, pride, and tradition. Although the Tulane Victory Bell was such an important aspect of the campus that students and staff passed by every day, no one stopped to consider the history behind this famous Tulane landmark.  

It was not until February 2020 that the bell was removed after a staff member discovered that the bell was originally from a plantation. The bell was made in 1825 to communicate daily schedule times to enslaved Africans working on the plantation. Slaves on the plantations were not given pocket watches or clocks, so this bell served as their way to keep time. Even though it was physically removed from the campus, the Tulane Victory Bell remains a symbol of racial injustice that remains within the University even in its absence.

Liberty Bell

The Liberty Bell serves as a reminder of our independence.

But the bell on Tulane’s campus is just one of many bells that have existed throughout the world for thousands of years. Bells have been around since the beginning of time with the first bell dating back to 2000 BC. Bells have also served many purposes over the years as different people and cultures have utilized them for different purposes. At the most basic level, bells are used to project sound throughout a large area to notify people of some sort of event. While some bells are used to notify the passing of time, other bells are used for religious purposes to call people together or perform religious rights. Bells have become commonplace symbols and tools in our world today and therefore most people do not consider their role throughout history or in different societies. 

Bells originated within the Christian religion as a representation of a higher power. Within Christianity, the ringing of a bell is said to represent the ‘voice of God’. Similarly, Buddhists, Hindus, and the Russian Orthodox Church believe that the sound of the bell directly addresses their respective deities. Many people also believe that bells can ward off evil spirits, placing bells or wind chimes outside their homes to keep them safe. Alongside this spiritual and religious power that bells possess, they often mark the beginning and the end of certain events. Generally, a person in a position of power uses this form of communication to signal the start or end of something to their inferiors. For example, the bell has long since been used in schools by teachers or administrators to signal the beginning and end of class. Throughout history and especially before technology, wealthy individuals used bells to summon their servants or slaves to get their attention with minimal effort. 

While bells can represent power over others and subservience, they can also be symbols of freedom and peace as well as instruments to create music for the enjoyment of others. For example, the ringing of the Liberty Bell signified the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. The National Park Service has come together with other organizations to ring bells on April 9th of every year to commemorate the Anniversary of the Civil War and call for the continuation of human rights today. There are many other bells throughout the world that also carry the symbolization of peace and happiness such as the International Friendship Bell, Australia’s World Peace Bell, and the Justice Bell.  

Bells are ubiquitous in our society and have become commonplace tools that can be used by anyone for any purpose. This gives a seemingly insignificant object with a very simple function and a lot of power. However, because the bell has proven throughout history and society to be used for such opposite purposes, it is the responsibility of the person utilizing the bell to determine its purpose. While some people use the bell to enforce their power and dominance over others, others use the bell as a way to represent good things like freedom and peace.  

While the Tulane Victory Bell at one point served as a tool of power and asserted dominance over inferior individuals, it still has the power to represent change and something good. Although removing the bell from the campus placated many people, the University must take things a step further and use the power of the bell to create change. Now that the bell is out of the hands of individuals who were using it for disgraceful things, it can redirect its power to educate the Tulane Student body. 

Tulane University is named after Paul Tulane, who was a wealthy New Orleans merchant who endowed the school in 1881 for the explicit purpose of educating “young white persons”. Following a court battle, Tulane begrudgingly admitted its first Black student in 1963, only 57 years ago. Just as Tulane has a history of racism, so does the Victory Bell. The attention that has been attracted around the removal of the Victory Bell should be utilized to teach the students and the community about the history of the school and the bell, but also its progression and dedication to change. By educating the students and faculty on this history, the community will be able to accept and move forward. This education will help the community to learn from the past and do better in the future.

It is important to consider seemingly simple objects such as bells. With their long history, bells hold conflicting symbols which allows them to be used in both good and bad ways. What is important, is for the user to consider the symbols and history to use the power of the bell in a way that will benefit society.


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