Duke University

Southern schools reckon with unsavory remnants of the past

Campuses are rife with honors to figures whose legacies have darkened over time. What to do about it now?

On Duke University’s leafy East Campus, where all students must live as freshmen, a beige brick dormitory has for 102 years borne the name of former North Carolina Gov. Charles Aycock.

For most of the 20th century, Aycock was known in the state’s history books as the education governor, widely lauded for his work in directing funds to improve public education.

One little hiccup: He was also a leading and unapologetic spokesman for white supremacy campaigns in the state in 1898 and 1900, espousing virulently racist views. According to some accounts, he even participated in a violent, armed coup to overthrow a biracial governing coalition in the city of Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1898, warning white Southerners that they needed to protect their women and children.  

Late last month, Duke, without much fanfare or even discord, quietly changed the name of the dorm to the much more sedate East Residence Hall.

“Today, 50 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and at the conclusion of a commemoration of integration at Duke, the values of inclusion and nondiscrimination are key parts of the university's mission,” Duke president Richard Brodhead wrote in an email to student leaders after the decision was made. “After careful consideration, we believe it is no longer appropriate to honor a figure who played so active a role in the history that countered those values.”

Duke is the only latest institution to undertake such an uncomfortable reckoning with the past. In recent years universities in particular, with an eye toward attracting diverse student bodies and avoiding public relations nightmares down the line, have grappled with how to deal with relics that signal respect for values that are now widely considered abhorrent.

“When you honor figures like this with a building name, at best what you’re doing is ignoring the lingering historical problems, and at worst you’re actually excusing them and participating in the perpetuation of those attitudes,” said Prashanth Kamalakanthan, a 2014 Duke graduate who lobbied for the removal. “Those horrible things in the past have reverberations in the present.”

For Duke, the choice was relatively easy. Aycock had no relation to the university; he was not a graduate of or donor to the school, and it remains a mystery why the board of trustees chose to name the building after him in 1912.

Michael Schoenfeld, vice president of public affairs at the university, said that after the student government and Duke’s Black Student Alliance passed resolutions asking the university to change the name, the university decided it was time to put the issue to bed. So far, he said the reception had been overwhelmingly positive, with little backlash.

“These things tend to simmer, sometimes a little bit hotter than others,” he said. “Having a very intense focus on the part of the university and society on diversity and inclusion made it of greater interest to do this now than perhaps in the past.”

In other quarters, the fight has been more brutal.

When Vanderbilt University decided to truncate the name of Confederate Memorial Hall to Memorial Hall in 2002, Southern heritage groups were outraged and flooded university officials with angry, sometimes threatening email and phone messages. The United Daughters of the Confederacy, which contributed $50,000 in 1933 to the construction of the building, sued the school, and an appeals court ruled that Vanderbilt had to retain the name or give back the donation, adjusting for inflation. Vanderbilt ultimately decided to change the name on all official documents and the university’s website but keep a sign for Confederate Memorial Hall on the building.

Jonathan Farley, then a math professor at the university, penned a controversial column on the subject in The Tennessean that argued that the Confederacy committed crimes worthy of capital punishment and that statues and building names honoring the Confederacy were “glorifying a time of tyranny.” He said he, too, received death threats and was equally appalled that he received little support from the university. Farley thinks things would be slightly different 12 years later.

“I was shocked — primarily that these groups were taken seriously, because they were openly supporting the KKK, and I don’t mean indirectly,” he said. “In 2014 we have a black president. I think that [university officials] would be more afraid now to align themselves with the Klan-supporting organizations.”

William S. Simkins as a cadet at the Citadel.

At the University of Texas, it took several weeks of deliberation by a 21-member advisory panel and two public hearings before regents decided to rename Simkins Hall to Creekside Hall in 2010. That building’s eponym? William Simkins, a former UT law professor and leader of the Ku Klux Klan in Florida after Reconstruction who admitted to assaulting a black man and participating in a train robbery.

“I do hope this does set the tone for other universities to look at their histories,” Gregory Vincent, the school’s vice president for diversity and community engagement said at the time. “We have set a standard for how to handle these types of situations.”

Al Brophy, a law professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said, however, that standards are hard to formulate and that each case requires individual consideration. 

At his school, some students are currently focused on Saunders Hall, named for a former Confederate soldier, a former UNC trustee and, as it happens, a chief organizer of the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina and the city of Chapel Hill during Reconstruction.

But in addition to Saunders Hall, there is Ruffin Hall, named for a former trustee and judge who penned one of the most stridently pro-slavery decisions in the antebellum era, which actually energized abolitionists; Magnum Hall, named after Willie Person Magnum, a pro-slavery advocate; Silent Sam, a memorial to fallen Confederate soldiers that has been a source of controversy; and another dormitory named for Aycock. 

“There’s always value in a name, and that’s an important factor in the case for renaming,” Brophy said. “Once you start, get the sandblaster out, because you’re going to have to take a whole bunch off.”

He added that he wanted to ensure that scrubbing a name from a building did not mean pushing an ugly history under the rug and pretending it never happened.

“I would be concerned that if we take Saunders’ name off the building, it’s a perfect moment for forgetting,” he said. “We’re a university. The most important thing is that we truck in ideas. I think what we should do is have a big discussion, educate ourselves and everybody about who this man is and why his ideas had purchase and why he was powerful and what the effect of his ideas and his power was. This can be a moment of education, and that’s more important than any decision.”

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