Celebrating 150 Spotlight Exhibits - Creating the Say Their Names exhibit


A large black and white banner, with words Know Justice Know Peace, Black Lives Matter, hung on the facade of Green Library.

What follows below is the edited text of an interview conducted by Liisi Esse, Curator for Estonian and Baltic Studies and member of the Spotlight Service Team, with Felicia Smith, the inaugural Racial Justice and Social Equity Librarian at Stanford Libraries on 22 February 2024. Felicia is the creator of the exhibit Say Their Names - No More Names: Green Library Exhibit supporting the Black Lives Matter movement

This interview was completed as part of a set of activities by the Stanford Libraries Spotlight Service Team to celebrate both the 10-year anniversary of the first Spotlight application launch and the publication milestone of 150 Spotlight exhibits.

Liisi: Thank you so much for sitting down with me to talk about what I and many others consider to be one of the most powerful Spotlight exhibits Stanford Libraries has produced, Say Their Names. The online exhibit was put together in conjunction with a physical exhibit – both were created in 2020. The exhibit “collects, collates, and chronicles the names of victims – both their images and their stories – so discussions can take place, questions can be raised, solutions debated, and most importantly that the individuals, whose identities have become hashtags, are not forgotten.”

Could you please reflect on when and how the idea for this exhibit came to be? Was the exhibit a sharp reaction to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery or did the impetus to create the exhibit slowly build over time? 

Felicia: Yes, this was a direct result of the murder of George Floyd. During that time, University Librarian Mike Keller had a town hall meeting and he asked how the libraries could respond to those three murders specifically, but also to the ongoing epidemic of murders by police of Black people. I suggested that the libraries could do an exhibit because libraries always do exhibits. I had never done an exhibit; I had no interest in exhibits. I just assumed that whoever does exhibits in the library would do an exhibit about this. And Mike Keller said, "oh, great, you should do that!" (laughs) And that’s how it started. 

Communications and Marketing Manager Kelly Fields agreed to help me. Everything that you see in the physical exhibit is created and designed by Kelly. Everything you see online was put there by User Experience Designer Astrid Usong. The idea was mine; the content was mine, the layout and the format, everything was my idea, but Kelly and Astrid helped me bring it to fruition. 

It was June, and the exhibit was scheduled to go up by September when students would return. I talked to people in the exhibits department, and they said it usually takes two years to do exhibits at Stanford. It was really, really crazy. A lot of librarians pitched in and helped write the stories, proofread, etc. This exhibit installation was a labor of love. We overcame a lot of obstacles, and it was stressful. 

Liisi: The speed and energy that all of you put into this project during the first year of COVID was remarkable. Did you have time at all to reflect on the importance of the exhibit at that time, or was it more of a feeling of, “We just need to do something, let’s do this!”?

Felicia: There were two months straight where it was just nothing but spreadsheets, hiring proofreaders, and double-checking facts and dates and settlement amounts. Outreach and Instruction Librarian Phyllis Kayten oversaw getting copyright permission for the online images. She was reaching out to all 65 families and told me that Stephon Clark’s mom, Sequette, wanted to talk to the person creating the exhibit. I was terrified because I thought she would think that I was exploiting her son’s murder. But she just wanted to thank me because she was so grateful that somebody at Stanford cared about her son. I was so stressed out trying to get the exhibit up that I had completely lost the reason why I wanted this exhibit in the first place! Talking to her brought it back to me, Sequette reminded me why I was doing this and for whom I was doing this – the families. I wanted to let them know that we cared. That’s the main thing I try to remember about this exhibit. 

One thing that I did, intentionally, from the beginning was decenter whiteness in the exhibit. Every time I would look on Google for Trayvon Martin, I would get pictures of his killer. I did not want to give him that power over Trayvon’s life. He killed him, but I didn’t want to look at his killer when looking for information about the life of Trayvon. I had to go back and reframe many of the pieces written by other librarians because that’s typically how the news accounts are framed.

I wanted to approach this as a forget-me-not memorial. I did not want to re-traumatize people. I wanted to tell these people’s stories, humanize them, so that people would hopefully want to learn more about these people and their stories. 

Liisi: Drawing on the protest slogan, “No justice, no peace,” the exhibit asks to “Know Justice, Know Peace,” demonstrating the library’s commitment to Information Literacy. This is also a clever way to remind us as an academic institution that there are times when we should not only be a bystander, the objective collector of information that would allow scholars to analyze the situation and policymakers to do something about it. There are times when we as an academic institution can be much more active than that. Was it easy to come to that conclusion?

Felicia: I believe so because of the narrow timeframe. Everybody was so passionate about making a change. This was the summer of racial reckoning nationwide. A lot of my colleagues who were helping me write these stories were stunned. Many had never heard these people’s names. This is why it’s spelled  “K-N-O-W.” 

It was exceedingly rewarding when right after I launched the online exhibit and we hoisted the banner outside the library and the students returned to campus, a couple of students came to me, and they asked if they could translate the online exhibit into Chinese and Spanish. Then, one of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric (PWR) instructors, Harriett Jernigan asked if she could translate it into German. Curator for Germanic Collections and Medieval Studies Kathleen Smith helped; Curator for Latin American, Mexican American & Iberian Collections Adan Griego helped with the Spanish translation; and the East Asia Library helped proofread the Chinese translation. It became the most translated Spotlight exhibit in the library’s history! 

Liisi: Let’s dive a little deeper into the process of putting together the exhibit. It highlights 330 names and 65 stories. What was your process for selecting the content for the exhibit? Why were these 65 stories selected and did you have any specific criteria when doing so? 

Felicia: The 65 names were mostly stories that I had learned about on my own. I wanted to include a sample of different types of victims. One name appears twice because I added Eugene Williams who was one of the infamous Scottsboro Boys, falsely accused of raping white women. However, the librarian assigned that name wrote about a different Eugene Williams' story who was killed in Chicago for swimming in the “whites-only” part of Lake Michigan. I had never heard about the Eugene from Chicago, even though I lived there my entire life, and I had heard about the Red Summer of 1919. So I decided to keep both of the Eugene Williams stories. I was shocked that they had the same name!

The 330 names started with names I also learned about on my own but expanded when planning the exhibit. The 330 amount was random. It started out with 100: I thought that number sounded cool, it was a nice round number. And then it became 120, then 137, then 211, and then 300. As I was learning more about these people, I found out about other stories that I had not heard of. 

I wanted to expand from people killed by the police. Some of the names are of people whose stories deal with medical racism, like Henrietta Lacks. There are formerly enslaved women’s names there, Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey (last names unknown). There are two names of little girls, Diamond and Tionda Bradley – they disappeared one afternoon, right by Lakeshore Drive in Chicago. They didn’t get a lot of coverage, showing the racism, the “Missing White Woman Syndrome” in the media coverage. There’s a little boy, Tyshawn Lee, who was killed by a gang member in Chicago. He was just walking home from school. Somebody in his family had gang ties and as a retaliation against his relative, they just shot and killed this little kid. That’s Black-on-Black crime but that’s still violence against Black people.

Every time I added more names, Astrid had to go into Spotlight and add names and reformat them. At one point, I told Astrid that I couldn’t give her any more names because I couldn’t ask her to keep reformatting. I was also physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted by these stories. That’s where we came up with the “no more names” subheading or slogan; it was a kind of a joke for us to cope. At 330 I stopped. The slogan is actually like our silent prayer: please let there be no more names, we don’t want any more names added to this list of victims. 

Liisi: Is there a story in this exhibit that has stuck with you the most, that has been perhaps the most emotional or important in your view? 

Felicia: George Stinney – I call him my ghost baby because ever since I heard his story, he latched onto my spirit and I promised him that one day I would tell people about him. He just kept hanging around. I don’t know what it was, maybe the pictures of him because his eyes are so heartbreaking. He was only 14 years old when he was executed by electrocution in 1944, after a sham trial. There were stories that he was so little that people had to sit him on books to raise him up so that he could be electrocuted. His little innocent face, everything, it haunted me because I couldn’t believe that a group of adults could do that to a child. He was just so incredibly little. It’s just so senseless. 

After I wrote his story and we published the exhibit, he disappeared. I don’t feel him anymore. I did what I told him I would do when I first heard this story.

Police mugshot of a young Black boy, first looking right and then looking into the camera.
George Stinney Case Files Department of Corrections. Central Correctional Institution. Record of prisoners awaiting execution.-S132004, File #260 / Photo courtesy of the South Carolina Department of Archives and History.

Liisi: Since the physical exhibit opened in 2020 during COVID, it was only accessible to those who were able to enter the library at that time. Because of that, it was incredibly important that you immediately turned this exhibit into an online exhibit. Could you please comment on the value of the Spotlight platform for showcasing this content? Was it a good fit for this project? Was it easy to use? 

Felicia: I’ve never used any other online exhibit platform, so I don’t have anything to compare it to. It was cumbersome to learn. Luckily, Senior Digital Library Services Manager Cathy Aster sat with me and the others and answered our questions day in and day out. 

Astrid and I wanted a gallery view that would rotate on its own and I don’t think Spotlight allows for that. We didn’t want people to have to scroll so that meant we had to shorten the amount of content that we could easily display on one page. I wanted it to be mobile-friendly, and so that also impacted the way that we constructed it. It was a steep learning curve for me but the fact that so many people all over the world have been able to use it has been a great benefit. I like the way that it looks, so I’m happy with that!

Liisi: Do you have any recommendations based on your experience for those who are thinking of putting together a Spotlight exhibit for the first time? 

Felicia: With the captions, I kept having to go back and get help. I was doing it wrong, and they were displaying wrong. I would just say, pay close attention to how you’re doing your photos and your captions. I remember thinking, I’m not understanding this, and I keep forgetting what Cathy said! She kept having to go in and fix it.

If you just pay attention to all the steps, you’ll be fine. We’re also all very, very lucky to have Cathy because she’s the one who basically knows everything about Spotlight. I tried to break all aspects of it, and she would have none of it. She had it Felicia-proofed! That made me feel very comfortable knowing that she was there, and she was always so kind. 

Liisi: The exhibit showcases phenomena in the US that unfortunately still persist: systemic racism, police brutality, racial injustice. What has been this exhibit’s contribution to the debates and discussions on these topics, both at Stanford and more broadly? What has been the feedback and the overall impact of the exhibit? 

Felicia: I was just coming into the Bing Wing and it’s family weekend. I’ve seen so many minority families taking pictures underneath the “KNOW JUSTICE, KNOW PEACE” banner. 

I’ve been invited every year for the last two or three years to the PWR class on activism by Dr. Selby Schwartz. She told me that most of her class wrote their essays about our banner! 

I did a presentation for University Archivist Josh Schneider’s community history archives event a couple of years ago. I was talking about the exhibit and this lady came up to me and said, oh my gosh, my son came here during admit weekend and he took a picture of your banner, and we sent it out as a postcard when we announced that he had been accepted into Stanford! She told me that the banner made him feel so welcome on this campus and so they wanted to make sure everybody saw that.

During parents’ weekend last year, I was at the Black Community Services Center where they had a pop-up art exhibit. So many people came to me and said that their student or daughter or son told them about this banner, and it made them feel like they were safer somehow. 

An alumna emailed photos of her front lawn where she had printed the 65 stories and placed them on signs with lights and chairs so passersby could read these stories. 

It’s so rewarding that people are still responding to this banner because so much love went into that. It means a lot, especially because Mike Keller fought for that banner. We know that the university does not allow banners. The fact that this banner exists is an accomplishment that people might not even recognize. 

Nothing was easy with this exhibit, and it was all worth it. 

Liisi: In addition to the exhibits in 2020, Mike Keller issued a statement on solidarity and support against systemic racism, and Stanford Libraries put together a systemic racism tracker. There are various other KNOW Systemic Racism (KSR) resources that you have listed in your KSR library guide. Can you comment on these efforts and perhaps highlight one or two of those resources that you think have proven to be especially beneficial? 

Felicia: We renamed it from the systemic racism tracker to my project now, which is KNOW Systemic Racism (KSR). The three T’s page of the exhibit came about because, at the very beginning of this process, people from the government were going on the news saying there’s no such thing as systemic racism. It was really getting on my nerves. I can’t argue with them because these people have “alternative facts.”  So, I’m just going to present the real facts and let people decide. 

On the KSR project, I am working with a lot of interns, community college students or Stanford students. We focus on the history of systemic racism in California, starting with policing because that’s the easiest. My goal is to show the interconnections because there are a lot of resources that talk about racism in policing, racism in health care, especially after COVID, racism in housing, racism in education, racism in employment, racism in voting rights, but they’re all very siloed. I want to show the connections between all these different areas because all of it compounds to cause harm to Black people. We want it to be open source so that other people in other states could duplicate it. 

I want to get to environmental racism. This is not a police project. This is an interconnectioned project with all the different areas of systemic racism and all these different systems throughout your life. But I’m stuck right now with the police part. 

The goal of the KSR project is to humanize the harm, to give people enough data to show that Black people have been systematically discriminated against in California since the very first governor. People don’t think that California has a racist history, and they would be surprised by all the things that have gone on.

Liisi: Are there any suggestions that you would like to convey to people reading this interview in terms of what we can do to help support the cause? 

Felicia: There are three tenets originally planned for KSR. The first thing is to identify that racism exists. The second is to humanize the harm and show the interconnections and how it compounds across all areas of life. The third thing is how to help. I don’t want people to just realize that racism exists and then see all these different areas where it’s compounding and then feel helpless.

I’m still trying to figure out what tangible things would make a real difference. Donating to the Equal Justice Initiative is one way that I recommend people can help today. They are doing really great work and I admire them. They are fighting the good fight and that’s hard.

Wreath of forget-me-nots, with the words Forget me not in the middle of the wreath.
The exhibit asks the reader to say the 330 names aloud so that these and other Black Lives Matter.

Liisi: Do you have any final thoughts that you would like to share? 

Felicia: I’m just hopeful that people will continue to see the exhibit. We’re bringing down the banner from outside. This is the fifth or sixth banner we put up and they’ve all been torn down by the wind, even though we had wind flaps in them. Astrid and I joked that the wind is racist because it keeps tearing down our banners. But suddenly, for whatever reason, the last one has survived. So, we’re going to store it and bring it back for the Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) Fair. 

We do have all the pictures of the physical exhibit on the website under the Green Library tab and some of our indoor banners are in the d.School [the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford]. The Redwood City campus has asked if they could get those banners after the d.School. It is so encouraging that people are still interested in these stories and this exhibit is resonating with them. I hope that it continues to resonate in the future because it is a forget-me-not memorial and I don’t want these people to be forgotten, especially my beloved ghost baby, George Stinney Jr.

Last updated March 19, 2024