Renaming university buildings with racist namesakes is an uphill battle
What’s in a (university building) name?
Influential people in a university’s history — a founder, a major donor — often have the honor of having a building, department or other prominent feature on campus named for them.
But a look into the histories of the namesakes of buildings around many college campuses in America reveal ties to white supremacy and slavery. And in the modern era, those ties are increasingly seen as problematic.
At some schools, students and faculty are holding their universities accountable for their racial history by demanding their universities change the names of the buildings that honor those who advocated for and benefited from systems of white supremacy, slavery and systemic racism.
The newest example: Yale University. After a renewed push in 2015 by students to have a building name changed, Yale University announced Friday it is renaming one of its residential colleges named in honor of former U.S. vice president and white supremacist John C. Calhoun, who was a prominent proponent of slavery.
Nick Girard, a Yale sophomore, pointed out that the Calhoun name change “is the result of decades of activism and action” by students and faculty. “It is excellent to see the university finally recognize this continued activism and listen to the students, alumni and professors who have protested Yale’s honoring a renowned supporter of slavery,” Girard told USA TODAY College.
Girard explained the tireless work it took for the change to happen. “So many invested academic, emotional, and mental labor in fighting to make a better, more inclusive Yale,” he said.
The decision to rename Calhoun College was not always on the table. As recently as last April, Yale president Peter Salovey said the name of the building would not be changed. But by August, he had announced a committee to explore renaming the building. The committee developed a set of principles to use when considering name changes, and the board voted to rename Calhoun College on Friday.
“John C. Calhoun’s legacy as a white supremacist and a national leader who passionately promoted slavery as a ‘positive good’ fundamentally conflicts with Yale’s mission and values,” Salovey said in a post on the Yale website.
The post also mentions that it followed guidance from schools like Georgetown that have recently changed building names on their campus.
In 2015, Georgetown president John DeGioia announced that the university would be renaming two buildings on campus that were named for two university presidents who had authorized and advised the sale of slaves to pay off campus debts. Mulledy and McSherry halls were both renamed at the suggestion of the working group on slavery, memory and reconciliation, a panel of Georgetown students, administrators and faculty. Students had lobbied the university for the building name changes.
While schools like Yale and Georgetown have taken steps to address their ties with slavery, there is still an uphill battle being fought at others.
At Clemson and Winthrop universities in South Carolina, students and faculty have called for buildings on their campuses named Tillman Hall to be changed and have been at the center of contentious debates over the renaming efforts.
Last fall, Winthrop students held a sit-in to enter talks with administration about the renaming efforts and to remind the campus who Tillman was.
Many students believe having Tillman’s name being attached to a prominent building on campus doesn’t reflect the university they attend today.
“It sort of invalidates and nullifies all of the student activities and engagement that happen in this building because most of the activities in this building are headed by students of color,” Winthrop student Candace Livingston told USA TODAY College. Livingston pointed to events hosted at Tillman Hall as one example of how off-putting it can be for students of color “to be in a building named after a man that could care less about our bodies.”
In 2015, Clemson’s faculty senate and the graduate student government both voted to rename Tillman Hall — a symbolic gesture, because only Clemson’s board of trustees can officially change the name of a building on campus.
In February 2015, Clemson University board of trustees chair David H. Wilkins announced in a statement that they would not rename the building, citing that whether the name of the building was changed Tillman would still remain a part of Clemson’s history:
“Every great institution is built by imperfect craftsmen. Stone by stone they add to the foundation so that over many, many generations, we get a variety of stones. And so it is with Clemson. Some of our historical stones are rough and even unpleasant to look at. But they are ours and denying them as part of our history does not make them any less so. For that reason, we will not change the name of our historical buildings. Part of knowledge is to know and understand history so you learn from it.”
Ongoing efforts to change the names of both Tillman Halls face strenuous challenges. South Carolina’s Heritage Act says that any street, park or plaque named for a historical figure in the state cannot be renamed without a two-thirds vote from the state General Assembly.
But Winthrop students aren’t backing down from the fight to have the building’s name changed on their campus. They’ve begun planning a letter-writing campaign and have engaged in other conversations with university officials to advance their fight to change the name of Tillman Hall.