Colleges and Racial Reckoning

Does changing a college's name advance social justice? Reviewing some of the history of racism on campuses, John R. Thelin urges facing the past as well as erasing it.

July 27, 2020
 
 
Report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice

“Rename Yale Now!” Who could ignore such a startling headline in The New York Times on July 2? It was part of a full-page service announcement sponsored by the Center for American Greatness featuring Roger Kimball’s treatise about Yale University’s colonial origins and historic monuments. Kimball, who is editor and publisher of The New Criterion, elaborated: “By all means, rename the Ivy League university founded on the riches of a slave trader. But replace it with a more honorable name.”

Kimball’s logic was that if Yale officials were going to remove alumnus John Calhoun’s name from a residential college, why not extend the purge to the institution’s namesake, Elihu Yale? I was left with two questions: Can one change the name of a historic university? And should one change it?

Changing the name of a historic college or university is unwieldy but possible. It has precedents. That is especially true for the Ivy League group that Roger Kimball singled out. Among the nine colonial colleges founded between 1636 and 1769, seven are members of the Ivy League. Most changed their names.

Yale, for example, was founded in 1701 as the Collegiate School and did not become Yale College until 1718. Harvard College, the oldest academic institution in the American colonies, was first called New College when it opened in 1636, changing its name to Harvard College in 1639. Columbia University was chartered as Kings College, but its affiliation with Tories made it a dangerous name during the American Revolutionary War. Princeton’s official charter of 1746 was for the College of New Jersey, and the name Princeton University was not officially approved until 1896.

Brown University was chartered in 1764 as the College of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. In 1804 it was changed to Brown University when Nicholas Brown Jr. gave a gift of $5,000 that included naming rights. The University of Pennsylvania started as the College of Philadelphia. Rutgers University, a colonial college that is not a member of the Ivy League, was founded in 1766 as Queen’s College and changed to its present name in 1826.

Despite this precedent, is changing a college’s name worth the effort today? What does it accomplish in terms of social justice as a part of educational mission? It should not overshadow other reconsiderations of race and institutional heritage. I am influenced by Senator Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat from Illinois, who wrote earlier this month in a New York Times op-ed about recent campaigns to remove George Washington from our monuments and memorials:

“But while I would risk my own safety to protect a statue of his [George Washington] from harm, I’ll fight to my last breath to defend every American’s freedom to have his or her own opinion about Washington’s flawed history. What some on the other side don’t seem to understand is that we can honor our founders while acknowledging their serious faults, including the undeniable fact that many of them enslaved Black Americans.”

Senator Duckworth’s perspective on icons and institutions prompts us to face the past rather than erase it. Why not keep the name and branding of Yale while using historical research to change Yale as an institution?

That’s a good resolution and reconciliation of past and present, because Senator Duckworth’s approach can be extended beyond statutes and the naming of buildings to historic American figures who were central to our antebellum colleges. As noted earlier, John Calhoun has been frequently criticized, whether at his alma mater, Yale, or at universities in his home state of South Carolina. In this essay, I want to focus on how colleges were transmitting his doctrines to college students. Who were the academic figures who provided a bully pulpit for Calhoun’s principles at college campuses?

One answer is Thomas Cooper, who became president of the University of South Carolina in 1820. He was teacher and mentor to several generations of students who would become governors and U.S. senators and congressmen from numerous states in the South. Cooper was magnetic in attracting to the institution the sons of planters who were preparing for state and national leadership in electoral politics as well as in appointed cabinet positions. Cooper’s teaching emphasized two things: first, the subject matter of political economy that advocated nullification theory and states’ rights, and second, the importance of oratory skills, which he insisted that his students hone in campus debating societies. His alumni were conspicuous in Congress for about 30 years. They had the legal, analytic and rhetorical tools that appealed to voters in the South and were persuasive in debates in Congress.

A second academic figure in the antebellum South’s collegiate legacy was Thomas Roderick Dew, an alumnus and professor at the College of William & Mary who was named president of his alma mater in 1836. Starting around 1828, Dew gained prominence for his speeches and pamphlets on regional and public policies such as “internal improvements” and the primacy of state banking as ways to enhance Virginia’s place in the national economy and politics. His growing reputation as a public figure included his recognition as having provided the foremost intellectual defense of slavery.

Within the campus, a good example was his inaugural convocation address as president in October 1836. He greeted the student body by noting their special responsibilities and rights as “the sons of slaveholders” and devoted the heart of his remarks to outlining codes of conduct and politics commensurate with that leadership role in college and as alumni in public life. Dew reminded the students to be wary of “fanatics” who advocated the abolition of slavery.

Complex Legacies

College presidents like Thomas Cooper and Thomas Dew are illustrative, not exhaustive, when exploring the complex legacies of campuses in the history of race in America across several centuries. Today as colleges and their constituents show visible concern about coming to terms with the distant past, it’s useful to look at some wise leadership in the recent past. In 2003, for example, Ruth Simmons, president of Brown University, initiated a model of institutional self-analysis about race and the campus. She established the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, leading to publication of a report and recommendations in 2007.

Numerous panels and presentations about the slave trade as part of local commerce and life, culminating with publication of a study about slavery and justice in Rhode Island, followed. The American colonial and college heritage were connected to the 200th anniversary observance of the Slave Trade Act of 1807. It is not an obvious or superficial history. For example, the wealth of the founding Brown family was based in part on the triangular slave trade. Yet within that same family were leading abolitionists who also were generous philanthropists to the university and local libraries.

Given the high priority today of confronting slavery and racism as part of higher education’s history, colleges and universities nationwide today can show that “history matters” by learning about and from the program that Simmons put into place at Brown more than 15 years ago. A campus could, for example, devote a permanent central place as a site for ongoing discussions, presentations and research as part of the formal course of studies and also integral to the extra-curriculum. And, although the examples I have noted thus far have dealt with the antebellum colleges, the scope of the proposed centers will gain in significance if they are extended and expanded over time and topics. An excellent model for this comes from the University of Minnesota archives, which in 2017 presented an exhibition and website devoted to the theme of “A Campus Divided,” dealing with exclusion and discrimination within the campus during the years 1930 to 1942.

For example, beyond slavery associated with the antebellum period, there is a less dramatic yet invidious American tradition that continued well into the 20th century. One incident that stands out was the 1936 Berlin Olympics, in which the American public hailed Jesse Owens as a hero who, after all, defused the Nazis by his winning four gold medals in track and field. But another side to that story of Americans praising an African American as a national hero is that one year earlier, when Jesse Owens was an undergraduate at Ohio State University, he was allowed to compete on the track team but did not receive an athletic scholarship and couldn’t reside in campus dormitories or eat in campus dining halls.

Far beyond the slave-owning South, most colleges in all regions of the United States accommodated nominal racial desegregation by offering at best a partially opened door well into the 20th century. Many admitted African American students without genuine acceptance and full citizenship in the campus community.

The case of Jesse Owens was conspicuous but hardly exceptional. For example, on July 20, The New York Times featured a two-page article about Jack Trice, the first Black football player at Iowa State University, who was not allowed to live on campus. The challenges Trice faced there extended to the football stadium. In his first game for Iowa State in 1923, he died of brutal injuries alleged to have been caused by the deliberate violence of opposing players who resented the presence of a Black player on the field.

There were numerous variations on the theme of the discrimination and humiliation that Black students faced once they enrolled at a historically white college. Between 1930 and 1942, for example, presidents of the University of Minnesota actively prohibited Black students from living in campus dormitories.

Many desegregated colleges assigned a staff member to be an enforcer who made certain that seating in a student union cafeteria remained segregated or that lecture hall seating was marked off by race. In some campus towns, pioneering African American students found a welcoming community in private homes and neighborhoods when dormitories remained racially exclusive.

Moreover, we think of college sports as being an equalizer based on talent, but often it was not. Even though universities in the Southeastern Conference had started to admit African American students to undergraduate programs by 1954, no Black student was allowed to play in a conference varsity basketball game until the 1967-68 season.

College and university presidents often were selective and pragmatic in their decisions to desegregate a campus. Why, for example, did some formerly all-white institutions admit African Americans into graduate programs but not undergraduate ones? These are the interesting, important nuances of higher education’s history that call for a new generation of scholars and students to explore and decode.

Bio

John R. Thelin is a University Research Professor at the University of Kentucky and author of A History of American Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press).

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