Don’t Say Their Names? What Happens When College Buildings Bear the Names of Racists

What’s in a name? It’s difficult—sometimes even wrenching—for institutions of higher learning to reconsider the names and legacies of founders, donors, and other individuals who are prominently featured on their campuses. Many colleges and universities have engaged in the hard process of becoming more inclusive and more reflective about the past while being careful not to erase history. Often, this involves task forces and committees that may or may not be guided by strong criteria for renaming. Here are a few examples of CIC member institutions that are working to contextualize the histories that are embedded in the names of buildings and other campus fixtures. (Of course, these short descriptions are not full accounts of the ongoing conversations in each community.)

Meredith College (Raleigh, NC)

Lux Hall, formerly Joyner Hall, at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina. source: Meredith College

In 2022, the Trustees of Meredith College acknowledged that Joyner Hall was “named for an individual who advocated for white supremacy and unequal funding for schools based on race.” A recommendation to rename the building came from the Campuswide Anti-Racism Initiative and the Task Force on Historical Context and Naming, which documented James Yadkin Joyner’s racist legacy and argued for the building’s “generational and lasting harm to BIPOC students.” These task forces included historians, other researchers, diversity consultants, and representatives from the faculty, staff, and alumni.

Joyner (1862–1954) was state superintendent of education and served as a Meredith trustee for five decades; although he was a notable supporter of public and postsecondary education in North Carolina, he also called for sharply unequal funding for Black students (among other White supremacist stances).

Meredith has further contextualized its campus history by posting QR codes that link to the history of every individual whose name is attached to a given building. There is also a webpage of FAQs about names and renaming on campus.

Pacific University (Forest Grove, OR)

Harvey W. Scott Memorial Hall, which houses the institution’s Center for Gender Equity and Multicultural Student Center, has been temporarily renamed “Pacific Hall” while Pacific University considers a suitable new name. source: Pacific University

Pacific University’s main campus is located near Portland, Oregon. The institution is reckoning with a racist legacy by removing the name of the very first graduate of the university, Harvey W. Scott (1838–1910). As editor of the influential Morning Oregonian and a prominent writer, historian, and civic leader, Scott “excused lynching, promoted Jim Crow segregation, opposed equal rights for women and people of color, celebrated laws to exclude Asian immigrants and described Native Americans as uncivilized.”

Until the end of 2022, Scott’s name graced the building that houses the institution’s Center for Gender Equity and Multicultural Student Center (the building is now “Pacific Hall”). A massive portrait of him hung in the library (now removed). Unlike many other institutions—where renaming efforts have been spurred by students, alumni, or institutional committees—the removal of Scott’s name was prompted by a series of articles in the Oregonian (the successor to Scott’s own newspaper!) in 2020.

Rider University (Lawrenceville, NJ)

The Alumni House at Rider University in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. source: Central Jersey

In 2021, the Board of Trustees at Rider University removed Benjamin Van Cleve’s name from the building that houses the alumni office. This followed a recommendation by the university’s Task Force on Rider and the History of Slavery. Van Cleve (1739–1817) once owned property that became part of the Rider campus in the 1950s. He was a veteran of the American Revolution, a long-time member of the state assembly (including several terms as Speaker), and a jurist; he was also a well-documented slaveholder and a public supporter of slavery.

In a joint letter from the university’s president and Board chair, Rider’s administration announced: “We cannot continue to hold him [Van Cleve] up, even tacitly, as worthy of honor or emulation…we can never confuse the removal of his name with erasing it from history.” Today, the building is simply referred to as the Alumni House.

Furman University (Greenville, SC)

The Joseph Vaughn statue at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. Vaughn (Class of 1968) was the institution’s first Black student. source: Furman University

Furman University has been a leader among CIC member institutions in confronting the legacies of slavery. As part of an ongoing effort, the university has renamed a prominent building, commemorated enslaved laborers who toiled on the campus in the 19th century, and honored the first Black student on campus (who arrived nearly a century after emancipation).

In 2019, the university’s Task Force on Slavery and Justice produced an exemplary report that included a list of recommendations that embraced both reckoning and repair. The recommendations to the college administration and trustees included: renaming student dorms after African American men and women; naming other spaces on campus after the enslaved people who built and worked at the college; honoring women and African American alumni by naming programs after them; and providing historical context through plaques and markers across the campus. (Not all of the recommendations have been enacted yet.)

Following the release of the report, James C. Furman Hall was renamed Furman Hall “in honor and celebration of the entire Furman family and all of the students, faculty, staff and alumni who have contributed to the history of the university.” James C. Furman (1809–1891) was the university’s first president and son of its namesake donor; he was also a vocal supporter of slavery and secession.

Rhodes College (Memphis, TN)

Southwestern Hall at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. source: Rhodes College

The oldest building at Rhodes College, Palmer Hall, was renamed Southwestern Hall in 2019. Benjamin M. Palmer (1808–1892) was a South Carolinian who became a prominent theologian and a leader of the Presbyterian Church in the South. For decades, he led the First Presbyterian Church in New Orleans. He was a founder of Southwestern Presbyterian University, the predecessor of Rhodes College. He was also a slaveholder, a secessionist, a pro-slavery propagandist, and a champion of the Lost Cause who reinterpreted the Bible to justify white supremacy.

Rhodes College began the renaming process by establishing a Palmer Hall Discernment Committee, which included students, alumni, and faculty members. After reviewing relevant primary and secondary sources related to Palmer’s life and career, the committee offered specific arguments for renaming the building: Palmer’s view of slavery as a biblical mandate; his dedication to establishing a theological foundation for slavery and segregation; the persistence of his racist ideas, which he clung to until the end of his life; and his advocacy of the Lost Cause movement. His vision was determined to be “fundamentally at odds with our college vision [today].”

Just as important, the Committee established guiding principles that can be used to navigate contests over names (and monuments) in the future, at Rhodes College or elsewhere. These include: the Principle of Alignment (with an institution’s mission and values), the Principle of History, the Principle of Discernment (i.e., leaning into the habits of inquiry and discussion that define liberal arts institutions), the Principles of Inclusion & Hospitable Environment, and the Principle of Transparency.