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Colleges Confront Racist Legacies by Changing Names, Removing Statues
- In light of recent protests, students are demanding colleges remove racist icons.
- Schools have renamed buildings originally named for segregationists and slave owners.
- Experts agree that confronting racist histories is a long-term process for colleges.
When the U.S. faced a reckoning with anti-Black racism after the recent police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, the message reverberated throughout nearly every American institution, including higher education.
In the past month, several colleges and universities have responded to protestors' calls to remove monuments and markers with historical ties to racism. The University of Mississippi, for example, decided to relocate a Confederate statue from its campus to the school's cemetery.
Other universities have rechristened buildings, auditoriums, and sports stadiums originally named for slave owners and segregationists.
Both schools removed the name of former North Carolina Governor and staunch segregationist Clyde Hoey from campus buildings.
Four years after deciding to preserve the name Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton reversed its decision, citing the former president's "racist views and policies." Like Princeton, Monmouth also stripped one of its buildings of Wilson's name.
This North Carolina school unanimously voted to rename an administrative building originally named after Reverend Robert Armistead Burwell and his wife, Margaret Anna Burwell, due to the couple's ties to slavery.
In June, Clemson agreed to remove John C. Calhoun's name from its honors college. Calhoun was a slave owner and advocate of slavery.
The famed public university recently renamed a few buildings and athletic structures, including the Robert L. Moore building. Moore was a former math professor who refused to teach Black students.
"Buildings (including names), monuments, etc., are not neutral," said Dr. Hilary Green, a history professor at the University of Alabama.
"Students of color who go by these spaces have to do mental gymnastics whenever they go into buildings named after people who either enslaved, subjugated, or called for the lynching of individuals who looked like them and would not consider them to be part of the campus community, if still alive."
“Students of color … have to do mental gymnastics whenever they go into buildings named after people who either enslaved, subjugated, or called for the lynching of individuals who looked like them.”
Some students have set their sights on an even more ambitious goal: renaming entire schools. Rutgers University President Jonathan Holloway — who is also the institution's first Black president — announced that the school's name would not change, even though its namesake, Henry Rutgers, owned slaves.
Likewise, despite calls to "#CancelYale" on social media because of Elihu Yale's occupation as a slave trader, the Ivy League institution has not taken any steps to confront the issue.
Campus Anti-Racism Activism Reaches a Boiling Point
"Many colleges, especially in the South, have buildings named after people who were political activists," said Dr. William Sturkey, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "In some cases, white supremacism lies at the heart of that activism. They weren't just political leaders who happened to be racist; racism was central to their political message."
This tension dates back to when colleges and universities began enrolling Black students. "There have been various upticks in activism, but these have been an issue since the 1960s," Sturkey explained.
Anti-racism protests in higher education have gained greater momentum in the past five years due to the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement.
In fall 2015, the University of Missouri made national headlines when protests calling for racial equity and increased diversity hit its campus. Around this time, a student activist group published a list of demands, which ultimately led to the university president's resignation.
“Many colleges, especially in the South, have buildings named after people who were political activists [and for whom] racism was central to their political message.”
A chief concern of many Mizzou students was the campus statue of former President Thomas Jefferson, who owned slaves and allegedly fathered at least six children with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. Jefferson still sits by the quad today, and the school has no plans to remove it.
More recently in 2018, on the night before fall classes began, UNC-Chapel Hill students toppled a controversial Confederate statue known as Silent Sam. The statue remains a hot issue at the university.
These examples illustrate how substantial changes at higher education institutions tend to come about slowly — if at all.
"Campuses responded to initial demands with promises, hiring Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion officers, and [making] some minor changes to the landscape with new markers/monuments," Green said. "[But] most demands were ignored. With students regularly graduating, most administrators simply wait until vocal students leave, and their demands typically fizzle out with the next cohort."
Nevertheless, students have successfully sustained momentum for their causes by creating petitions, holding lectures, and using other tactics. This momentum — combined with the politically charged atmospheres of May and June — has led colleges to make decisions many wouldn't have entertained a mere decade ago.
Paving the Way for a More Equitable and Diverse Future
Higher education institutions still have a long way to go if they hope to effectively grapple with their racist legacies and correct the mistakes of their past.
"This is merely another phase in a continued history of addressing these problems at Southern institutions of higher education," Green explained. "It is an ongoing process and not always a straightforward one."
According to Green, changing campus building names and removing monuments is just one step along a challenging and twisted road. But in the larger scheme of things, it's a relatively easy move to make.
"The hard work — and true measure of an institution — will be seen in terms of the new faculty of color hires, faculty retention, curriculum changes, new scholarships to address systemic institutional inequality, and building a sustainable model that applies lessons learned from this reckoning of an institutional racial past," said Green.
Meanwhile, Sturkey feels optimistic about the future of the U.S.
"The United States has struggled with race for a very long time," Sturkey said. "Some want to cover the wound and pretend it never existed, while others suggest that we should deal with it using all our capacities for healing and reconciliation. The latter seems to be in front for now. And colleges have a major role to play in reckoning with this history."