by James A. Baumann
A number of campus building namesakes are being put under the microscope. Spurred by the Black Lives Matter movement, this additional
scrutiny has brought to light personal and institutional histories that, in
some cases, resulted in buildings – including residence halls – having their
names changed in recent months.
Individuals whose names have been removed from buildings include
alumni as well as past faculty, administrators, and others. One of the more
prominent instances occurred at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, where the Board of
Visitors voted to rename the Lee and Barringer residence halls. Lee Hall originally
was named for Claudius Lee who was a prominent electrical engineering faculty
member but, as a student in 1896, was listed in the yearbook as president of a Ku
Klux Klan (KKK) group. Barringer Hall had been named for Paul Barringer, the
university’s sixth president who, as a physician, had espoused racist views.
Taking steps similar to what has been done elsewhere, the halls
are being renamed in honor of Black figures in campus history. Under these
changes, Lee Hall will become Hoge Hall. The building, which includes two
living-learning communities focused on engineering, will be named for Janie and
William Hoge, a couple who hosted a number of Black Virginia Tech engineering
students who were not allowed to live in campus housing. Meanwhile, Barringer
Hall will become Whitehurst Hall, named for James Leslie Whitehurst, Jr., who
was the university’s first Black student allowed to live on campus and went on
to became a major in the Air Force Reserve in Virginia.
Virginia Tech is not the only campus
making such changes. At Princeton University in New Jersey, after years of
debate about his segregationist policies, former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s name was taken off the
institution’s school of public affairs as well as a residence college. Belhaven
University in Jackson, Mississippi, removed the name of a former campus president
who was a segregationist. At Illinois State University in Normal, several
floors in Watterson Towers residence hall will have their names changed because
the namesakes were slave owners. Names also are being changed at Towson
University in Maryland, the University at Buffalo in New York, the University
of North Carolina Chapel Hill, and Elon University in North Carolina, among
Elon’s decision to remove the name of
William Harper, a former president who advanced white supremacist views, came
as a result of a student petition that gathered more than 5,100 signatures.
Student Katy Laser, who started the petition, was quoted as saying, "I'm just really glad that [President Connie Book] is
finally taking the necessary steps to reckon with [Elon's] racist past. I think
it's going to be a long, slow process, and probably a painful one, but you have
to start somewhere and I'm really glad that Elon is finally addressing [it]."
MarQuita D. Barker, Elon’s director of
residence life, explains that, after the board’s decision, the building started
to be referred to by a letter. When a new name is chosen, her department “will complete the necessary
steps to update the website, change housing systems in conjunction with technology,
and notify staff.”
In other cases, the process is not as straightforward. The South
Carolina state legislature, for example, in 2000 passed the Heritage Act, which
prohibits “removal, changing, or renaming of any local or state monument,
marker, memorial, school, or street erected or named in honor of the
confederacy or the civil rights movement” without the legislature’s approval.
The act gained attention after the Board of Trustees and its president at the
University of South Carolina in Columbia approved a resolution to ask the
legislature to let them rename Sims Hall. The women’s residence hall was named for J. Marion Sims, who is known as the father of modern
gynecology, but many of his medical discoveries were made through experiments he
did on enslaved women without the use of anesthesia. In an open letter to the
trustees, USC president Bob Caslen wrote, “We are all endowed with human frailties
and are products of our time, but the actions that are such a large part of
Sims’ legacy are incompatible with respect for human dignity and the values we
hold dear as a campus community.” In 2018, a statue of Sims was removed from
Central Park in New York City.
James A. Baumann is editor of the Talking Stick.