Thomas D. Russell, a professor of law at the University of Denver, said that his friends have had varying reactions to the impact of a a scholarly paper he published in March. His friends in public relations can’t believe it took so long for the subject of the paper to respond to an image disaster. His historian friends, however, are amazed by the speed with which history research is having as concrete a result – especially since this involves a decision in higher education, where change comes slowly.
Russell’s paper – published on the Social Science Research Network – drew attention to William Stewart Simkins (1842–1929), for whom a dormitory at the University of Texas at Austin was named in the 1950s. Simkins was a longtime law professor at Texas, but before that, he and his brother helped organise the Florida branch of the Ku Klux Klan – an organisation he defended throughout his life, including while serving as a law professor. Russell’s paper led to public discussion in Austin of the appropriateness of naming a university building for a Klan leader. On Friday, William Powers Jr, president of the University of Texas at Austin, announced that he would ask the university system’s Board of Regents this month to change the name.
Colleges and universities periodically debate whether to rename buildings or programmes that honour those who are subsequently indicted or linked to scandals or who have failed to make their pledged gifts.
But debates over honours for the long-dead are complicated. Many argue, for instance, that the Rhodes Scholarships represent something quite different from the colonialist, racist ideas of Cecil Rhodes, the man for whom they are named. Russell’s research may lead, however, to uncomfortable questions at other institutions. He doesn’t argue for renaming every building or taking down every statue of people who fought for ideas now considered to be wrong. But he wants the history behind these honours out in the open, discussed and debated. And he thinks certain kinds of associations – specifically those with Klan leaders who never changed their views – don’t deserve places of honour at colleges and universities.
The move at Texas comes at a time that a number of universities have recently examined the ties of their institutions or their founders to slavery. And the issue is expected to gain more attention when scholars from around the country, including Russell, convene at Emory University in February for a conference called Slavery and the University: Histories and Legacies. Organisers hope that they will encourage closer study of colleges and universities everywhere – many of which haven’t told their own histories and a number of which still have buildings honouring Klan leaders.
“The openness or lack of openness around these issues at universities sends messages to people about what issues are legitimate and deserve attention,” said Leslie M. Harris, associate professor of history at Emory University and one of the conference organisers. “In terms of names of buildings, who we honour matters.”
Russell taught at the University of Texas at Austin for a decade before a recent move to Denver, and he was at Texas during intense debates over affirmative action in admissions – which a federal appeals court banned until a US Supreme Court ruling in another case made clear that public colleges could consider race in admissions. Russell’s research mixes history, law and issues of race. After the Hopwood decision (which barred affirmative action), Russell said he noted the pressure on minority students and found himself thinking about a portrait of Simkins in the law school.
“For the most part, people had no idea who he was, but some faculty knew exactly who he was,” said Russell. Part of what led him to study Simkins was that he is commonly described in Texas histories as “colourful” or “eccentric”, or as a devoted professor – all true, but leaving out the key detail of his having been a Klan leader in the reconstruction era – a time when the Klan was particularly violent (even by the organisation’s later history). “This is about someone who engaged in what we today call terrorism,” Russell said.
And that’s why he distinguishes between Klan buildings and the statues of Confederate leaders in Austin (and throughout the South). Many soldiers, he said, “served honourably, in the Confederate and Union armies”, feeling that they were doing their duty. The Klan was something altogether different.
Russell’s paper focuses on the 1950s – long after Simkins’ death, but at the time when the University of Texas was facing pressure to admit black students. The Texas law school was the subject of a key 1950 Supreme Court ruling, Sweatt v Painter, that ordered the university to admit a black law student, finding that the “separate but equal” offerings of the state for a legal education were not close to equal. While the decision didn’t go as far as Brown v Board of Education in rejecting segregation in its entirety, the decision was a key step towards desegregation. Russell’s paper looks at the way the university altered admissions standards in the 1950s to create new ways to exclude black students at a time when it couldn’t rely solely on de jure segregation to do so.
It was in this era, Russell’s paper notes, that the university decided to honour Simkins: “The memory and history of Professor Simkins supported the university’s resistance to integration.”
In the interview, he said that he thinks the discussion at Texas shows that “universities ought to engage professional historians” to study their pasts, and not just rely on generally sympathetic depictions. “The history of a university should not be left to the alumni association.”
While not saying that all buildings named for those with Klan ties should be renamed, Russell said that places that have such buildings “should certainly think hard about it” and not assume that decisions made long ago can’t be revisited. “Whom we choose to honour is an important thing for society and important for universities,” he said. “Every day that anybody’s name is on a university building is a decision that day by the university to honour that person.”
Some universities with such buildings in the past have renamed them. The University of Oklahoma’s chemistry building was once named for a longtime faculty member who was a Klan member, but after protests in the 1980s, the name was removed. Some universities have tried to change names and been blocked. Vanderbilt University wanted to remove the word “Confederate” from the facade of “Confederate Memorial Hall”, but a Tennessee appeals court blocked the move, saying that the university had committed to the name when it accepted a gift from the United Daughters of the Confederacy. (The university, after losing in court, said it would simply stop using the word “Confederate” in its own publications and maps.)
Other universities have had periodic protests and kept names linked to the Klan. Saunders Hall at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is named for William L. Saunders, who was a Klan organiser in North Carolina (and also served as secretary of state in North Carolina and as a university trustee). In protests in 2001, black students called for the university to change the name of the building.
At Middle Tennessee State University, Forrest Hall – where the Reserve Officer Training Corps programmes take place – is named for Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate military leader who was a Klan leader after the Civil War ended. In 2006 and 2007, there was a push by some students to rename the building. The university declined to do so, and the issue has been quiet since. Facebook groups created at the time show that while some students pushed for a name change, others argued for keeping the name and mocked those who wanted to remove it. The university held several forums and debates at the time.
The group Students Against Forrest Hall stated its rationale this way: “The irony of the situation is the very building that symbolizes democracy and trains our future military officers, who will protect our country and freedoms, is the same building that’s named after a racist bigot!!!!” Others, perhaps not taking the situation that seriously, proposed changing the name to instead honour Stephen Colbert.
Others, however, argued and organised petition drives to keep the name. The group Students Against Students Against Forrest Hall gave as its view: “In 4 years it will be out of your life forever. LET IT GO! Are you REALLY that offended by it?? I mean REALLY offended. Were you even offended by it before it became an issue? LET IT GO!” One student posted this on the site: “If they change the name of a building, then whats next? will they have to change our state’s name because Tennessee was part of the Confederacy?... I mean every object, idea, person, etc. on the planet is offensive to someone if its put into a bad context.”
A spokesman for Middle Tennessee State said that the view of the institution was that “we weren’t going to rename the hall, because it would be trying to erase history and it’s a part of history”, but he added that the honour was for Forrest’s “military prowess”, not his Klan activity.
Russell said that the Klan member with the most campus buildings named after him is Bibb Graves, who was governor of Alabama from 19 to 1931 and from 1935 to 1939. He was a Klan member, elected with Klan support. According to one report, there is a building or complex named for Graves at every four-year public college or university in the state – including historically black Alabama A&M and Alabama State Universities. Graves is also honoured outside the state, with a dormitory at Bob Jones University, whose founder was a friend of Graves.
Glenn Feldman, a historian at the University of Alabama at Birmingham who has written extensively about Alabama history and the Klan, said that he cannot recall anyone protesting the honours for Graves. Leaving aside issues of race, he said, Graves was “probably the most progressive governor Alabama ever had”. Graves was a prominent New Dealer, a close friend of Hugo Black (who became a Supreme Court justice despite his Klan past), and he devoted himself to building the infrastructure of the state, including its public colleges. Governors who paid for buildings at state colleges and universities typically had buildings named for them, Feldman said, and Graves built more than others did.
Feldman said that the lack of outrage over honouring a Klan member may relate to just how common Klan membership was among the white political elite in Alabama in the 1920s, when the Klan had about 140,000 admitted members in the state. Feldman said that Graves was in some ways like Robert Byrd, whose recent death drew attention to his Klan membership early in his career. “Graves was probably more liberal than Byrd on everything but race,” Feldman said, adding that while he was providing context for the times, he did not mean in any way to excuse Graves for his attitudes about race.
Russell, the Denver professor who studied the UT history, said that he has been asked by many people what he would say about the buildings and other honours – many of them on campuses – that Byrd received. His answer is that “Byrd apologised again and again for his early Klan activities,” and after a certain point in his career, he voted in favour of civil rights. “Simkins was unrepentant his entire life,” he said.