Mere hours after a professor unveiled on Tuesday his plan for American University's forthcoming new Antiracist Research and Policy Center, someone hung 10 Confederate flag signs with cotton stalks stapled to them around campus. The signs included the phrase "Huzzah for Dixie."
The center, which was announced last year, will be headed by history professor and bestselling author Ibram X. Kendi. Several posters were found outside Kendi's classroom.
In response to the Confederate flag and slave imagery, faculty and students vowed Wednesday to defy racism.
University President Sylvia Burwell hosted a campus town hall Wednesday to provide updates on the university's efforts to identify the suspect and to allow students a chance to voice their concerns. Burwell, who was at times emotional, said the incident made her both angry and sad.
"Those that do these acts want us to stray from our values," she said through tears. "But we're gathering today so that is not where we go. So that human dignity and inclusion define us instead."
Campus police have released a photo and video of a man they say is the suspect in the racially charged incident. Campus Public Safety Director Philip Morse described the man in the photo as 5'10 white male who appears to be in his 40s. The man was dressed in a construction helmet and reflective vest, which Morse said he believes is a disguise.
"We hope that by the end of the day we have identified this person [and] that we can take our evidence to the U.S. attorney's office," he said.
Kendi, who won the 2016 National Book Award for his book "Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America," described what it was like to walk out of his history class and see the posters on the wall.
"I had to see the emotional reaction and response of the students, which of course left me heartbroken," he said. Kendi said he spent hours that evening writing a letter to students, which he later posted to Twitter.
"I want you to know that you are a model of triumph — and when you triumph you become a threat to people who would rather you fail," he wrote.
Several students at the town hall confronted the school's administrators over the lack of diversity among faculty and the student body. Many also said that they now fear for their safety while walking on campus.
"I also want to point out that all of these incidents are targeting black people and we have to stop saying that this is an 'everybody' problem, this is a black student problem," said Sydney Jones, president of the university's student NAACP chapter.
According to hate-crime watchdog the Anti-Defamation League, white supremacists groups are increasingly targeting college campuses with racist propaganda. The organization counted more than 140 incidents of white supremacists "fliering" universities last year alone.
Last May, shortly after the university elected junior Taylor Dumpson to serve as its first student body president, someone hung bananas and nooses at several locations around the campus, including outside her predominantly black sorority house.
At Wednesday's town hall, Dumpson said she hasn't had a single semester during her four years without a racially motivated incident. She urged the university to do more to address the lack of diversity on campus and to be more transparent in the way its handles racially charged incidents.
"What can you say to students that this is their freshman year, it's not even been a month into University that this has happened," she said. "This is the life that students of color on a regular basis, specifically black students, have had to deal with time and time again."