In the 11 months since George Floyd was murdered, a moment that galvanized Black Lives Matter and similar movements throughout the country, powerful institutions were forced once again to reflect on their own questionable pasts.
Colleges not only became a focal point for racial change, but they also became the target of contention as diverse groups of young people mobilized around the country to question why overt symbols of brutal oppression and racial subjugation still hung above the doorways to educational enlightenment.
While that paradox is now questioned throughout the year, Confederate Memorial Day had evolved into a day of heightened awareness that racism still saturates some of the South’s most important institutions.
Last summer, Reckon examined the confederate histories of a handful of the South’s largest colleges, many of which can trace their foundations directly to key figures of the Confederacy. At that time, the University of Alabama removed three Confederate memorial plaques, while North Carolina got rid of Silent Sam, a statue depicting an unknown confederate soldier, in Nov 2019. Ole Miss moved a statue to the school’s Confederate cemetery.
However, nearly a year later, some significant memorials still exist.
The University of Alabama has yet to find a new name for Gorgas House, named after Confederate General Josiah Gorgas. The Amelia Gayle Gorgas library is still named in honor of his wife, who is described as coming from one of the South’s prominent slaveholding families.
The University of Georgia continues to have buildings named in honor of white supremacists and Daughters of the Confederacy, while Louisiana State University still has a building named after David French Boyd, a major in the Confederate Army and former President of the school. It also still has Edmund Kirby Smith Hall, whose namesake was also a general in the Confederate Army.
In June 2020, a student group known as LSU Democracy at Work called for renaming 11 buildings with links to Confederate officers, segregationists and Louisiana governors with a history of exclusionary policies. As part of the group’s petition, it pointed to LSU’s own inconsistent policies on the naming of buildings, which states that namesakes must have significant ties to the university or be of outstanding character. President Andrew Jackson and General PGT Beauregard both have halls named after them but have no known connection to the university.
And in some circumstances, there have been examples of exceptionalism — attempts to advocate for certain historical figures despite those people having firmly racist beliefs throughout their lives.
Louisiana’s Nicholls State University, for example, did change the name of two of its main buildings, PGT Beauregard Hall and Leonidas K. Polk Hall in June 2020. However, the school has said it would not change the name of the school, named after Francis T. Nicholls, also a general in the Confederate Army.
The school also has no plans to rename a building named after E.D. White, who as a young man fought for the Confederacy as a soldier but would later go on to become the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. He voted with the majority in the landmark Plessy vs. Ferguson case that upheld racial segregation in 1896.
Virginia Commonwealth University has by far made the most changes. Over the last year, the Richmond-based college has renamed dozens of different buildings on campus, according to Southern Poverty Law Center’s Confederate memorial database. The database is updated using media accounts and tips from the public and is not an exhaustive list.
In renaming the buildings at VCU in Sept last year, Michael Rao, president of the school said: “It is clear that the values represented by these namings and symbols run counter to the values to which we are committed — inclusion, equity and diversity. The symbols of the Confederacy have come to impede our mission to serve all and that’s why I have recommended we no longer honor those symbols.”