LSU Renames Library; Schools Across the Nation Take Similar Steps To Address Racist Past

As calls for accountability are amplified across the country, many institutions are starting by addressing their racist history—many of which involved naming rights for funders or founders. Recently the Board of Supervisors of Louisiana State University (LSU) unanimously voted to remove the name of former university president Troy H. Middleton, whose 1961 correspondence stated his wish to keep the school segregated, from the LSU Library.

person on ladder removing metal letters from library facade as other people watchAs calls for accountability are amplified across the country, many institutions are starting by addressing their racist history—many of which involved naming rights for funders or founders. Recently the Board of Supervisors of Louisiana State University (LSU) unanimously voted to remove the name of former university president Troy H. Middleton, whose 1961 correspondence stated his wish to keep the school segregated, from the LSU Library.

Members of the LSU community—particularly Black students—have long taken issue with the fact that their library was named for a man who would have preferred to exclude Black students from sports and school functions, Dean of Libraries Stanley Wilder told LJ. “This is not simply a knee-jerk reaction to the recent troubled times that we've been going through,” he noted. But “this time it happened in the context of a cultural moment where the LSU community was able to listen and act.”

Middleton’s papers are preserved in the LSU archives—among them, a letter he wrote to former University of Texas Chancellor Harry Ransom. At the time, the University of Texas was facing widespread legal and internal pressure to desegregate its dormitories, and Ransom had written to leaders at several other Southern schools to ask them how they handled integration.

Middleton wrote back: “Though we did not like it, we accepted Negroes as students.” But LSU did not allow Black and white students to room together, he said. “We keep them in a given area and do not permit indiscriminate occupancy.”

He went on to write, “Our Negro students have made no attempt to attend social functions, participate in athletic contests, go in the swimming pool, etc. If they did, we would, for example, discontinue the operation of the swimming pool.” If a Black student asked to participate in school athletics, Middleton concluded, “I think I could find a good excuse why he would not participate. To be specific—L.S.U. does not favor whites and Negroes participating together on athletic teams.” LSU’s varsity football team did not have a Black member until the early 1970s.

The library, which opened in fall 1959, was named for Middleton after his death in 1979.

 

STUDENTS SPEARHEAD RENAMING

The recent push to remove Middleton’s name began with a tweet from LSU student Exquisite Williams. “It was just kind of saying ‘Don't forget, LSU has a building named after a person who never wanted people who looked like me to be able to go in that building in the first place,’” Williams told LSU’s Tiger TV. Williams, with fellow students Kendall Di Iulio and Kalvin Morris, drew up and circulated a petition outlining reasons to rename the library, which eventually garnered more than 13,000 signatures.

“I think it's important that a lot of people realize that the naming of things cements a legacy, and if you don’t understand the history of that legacy you don’t understand what it entails,” Williams told the LSU Reveille.

University leadership met with Black student leaders for several days in early June; at the same time, LSU and Black leadership were also discussing a number of other racial equity and justice issues, particularly the school’s handling of a newly admitted freshman who was caught on video using a racial slur. Together, they announced on June 10 that, pending board approval, Middleton’s name would be removed from the library, as well as a bust of Middleton that stood in the library lobby, and anything else associated with his name.

“That was very, very impactful for us, getting this name changed, because we have been seeing a lot of words, a lot of statements thrown out by our university, and the students are needing action,” said BlackOut LSU organizer Gideon Adeyemo said. “We are needing change. This is one of the very first actionable things that could happen on this campus.”

“The library is a place where our students of color should feel welcome and safe as they study, learn, and congregate with their peers,” the LSU statement read. “Building and place names should not be a reminder of a racist past, reminders that inhibit our students’ learning and their full inclusion on campus.”

Some, including Middleton family members and former State Representative Woody Jenkins, spoke out against the library’s renaming, but at its June 19 meeting the LSU Board of Supervisors passed the motion unanimously. Only hours later, a work crew began removing Middleton’s name from the library’s façade. A small crowd applauded when the final letter was taken down.

Although the petition had advocated renaming the library after Pinkie Gordon Lane, LSU’s first black female Ph.D. graduate, and the public had suggested a number of other names, the building is now called simply LSU Library.

A tweet from LSU Libraries stated that this is only an interim name, but Wilder explained that LSU is planning a new library—last year, when it was announced that the university would open a nearly $28 million athletic center and football locker room, one alumna launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise $20 million for a new building. “The campus master plan calls for tearing the main library down,” Wilder told LJ. “So the idea of giving that building the name of a person and then tearing it down, that doesn't make much sense.”

 

SOME PUSHBACK

Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards issued a statement in support of renaming the library. However, upon LSU’s announcement of the name change, the Middleton family released a statement to The Advocate that read, in part, “We expressly and unequivocally denounce the university's dishonorable plan to remove his name and memorials from the very library the funds for which he led the university's effort to obtain from the state legislature.” The family encouraged the public to reach out to members of the Board of Supervisors and the governor’s office to protest “this proposed defenestration.”

The library—and the school as a whole—is anticipating pushback from donors who disagree with the decision. “This is just something that LSU as an institution is going to have to address,” said Wilder. He is hopeful that new patrons will step in, and that with some open conversation, “over time people will naturally gravitate back to their commitments to the institution.”

The reaction on campus has been largely positive, he added, with the caveat that “LSU is a community of thousands of people, and I don't pretend to know how folks see it—I don't want to speak for them.”

Wilder has let library staff know that there’s room for disagreement with the decision if they wish to speak up. “On the other hand, I know that everybody in the library is deeply committed to creating an inclusive and welcoming environment,” he noted, “I'm just telling them that it's my belief that this decision brings us a step closer. If there's disagreement on the name, what I'm hoping to do is to try to focus our attention on our collective goal of being as inclusive as we possibly can.”

A committee is currently in place to evaluate the names of every LSU building, Interim President Tom Galligan and Board of Supervisors Chair Mary Werner told The Advocate. “It's not just names,” Assistant Director of African American Student Affairs Evante C. Topp told WBRZ2. “We're talking about murals. We're talking about statues. We're talking about other buildings that will also be considered over time.” Devin Woodson, cochair of the LSU Black Male Leadership Initiative, has suggested David F. Boyd Hall, named for a founder who served in the Confederate army, and Kirby Hall, named for Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith, as candidates for renaming. Students at Democracy at Work LSU have created a petition to rename 11 buildings.

 

RETHINKING ICONOGRAPHY

LSU is not alone. Many other institutions are considering their legacies, and libraries often have a part to play.

At Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, a Native American student group called on leadership to remove a 1928 weathervane, which depicts college founder Eleazar Wheelock sitting by a barrel of rum while lecturing to a Native American student, from the tower of Baker Library. The weathervane is a “patronizing and stereotypical depiction of Native peoples,” and a “demeaning symbol,” the executive board of Native Americans at Dartmouth said in a statement. “The positioning of this figure at the feet of an ‘educating’ colonizer demonstrates an inherent subversion of Native people and upholds a narrative of white supremacy.” Dartmouth was originally founded as a school to convert Native Americans to Christianity, and many architectural devices and embellishments on campus reflect that.

An online petition was signed by more than 860 people, and on June 15 Dartmouth President Philip J. Hanlon announced that the college would replace the 600-pound device. A working group will consider new designs, and will look at other representations across campus to see what needs to be changed. “Baker Tower, which sits on top of the library, in the center of campus, is a powerful symbol of our commitment to learning and academic excellence,” said Hanlon in a statement. “From bottom to top, it should reflect our values.”

At Iowa State University, the University Library has been tasked with reviewing all honorific naming on campus after a plaque commemorating Bronx Zoo director W.T. Hornaday, who exhibited a man from the Republic of Congo at the zoo in 1906, was removed in June.

Three Confederate memorial plaques were removed from the façade and grounds of the University of Alabama’s (UA) Gorgas Library in early June. The plaques, which commemorated UA students who had served in the Confederate army and student cadet corps, will be relocated to a “more appropriate historical setting,” according to a press release. Gorgas Library was named for university postmistress and librarian Amelia Gayle Gorgas, the wife of Confederate general Josiah Gorgas, the university’s eighth president.

On March 23, the University of Cincinnati board of trustees voted to remove donor Marge Schott’s name from its baseball stadium and library. Schott, former owner of the Cincinnati Reds, had a history of suspension and fines by Major League Baseball for making racist and anti-Semitic comments.

United for Libraries, the American Library Association’s (ALA) division for Friends of the library, foundations, and boards of trustees, also oversees the Literary Landmarks program. On June 12, United voted unanimously to rescind Literary Landmark status for Beauvoir, Confederate president Jefferson Davis’s home and presidential library in Biloxi, MS. The organization also voted to establish a working group with ALA’s Office for Diversity, Literacy, and Outreach Services to review other Literary Landmarks.

“Everything about this moment is about resolving to do new things,” said LSU’s Wilder. “Let this not be a matter of speaking of good intentions, but actually making concrete improvements. We know we have so much of that kind of work yet to do. I don't want to give anybody the impression that we feel as if we're already there. Nobody's there.”

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is News Editor for Library Journal.

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Jared White

It would be interesting to know if these same institutions are also taking at look at their various policies and admission process to reevaluate and see if there are racist elements embedded. Yes, it's wonderful that they are doing these things but they're very public things, easy to see, I just hope they're dealing with the more subtle and behind-the-scenes issues as well.

Posted : Jul 08, 2020 12:15


Cameron McLaughlin

Unfortunately pushback from donors' families can be a stubborn problem. I've worked at major universities in the South and have seen this several times. They always find a way to whitewash (grotesque pun somewhat intended) the larger cultural significance of honoring repugnant individuals and beliefs with an often supercilious self-righteousness about the amount of money involved. I've had several tense conversations with donors in which I had to be blunt and say that no, giving us x millions does not entitle you to enshrine and honor your ancestor's or relative's exclusionary or discriminatory beliefs and practices. This is a university, not a club of your like-minded peers. We as an institution are committed to genuine inclusion, diversity, and intellectual freedom. That does not mean exalting people whose beliefs contradict those values. Or taking their money. To their great credit, the relevant committee of one institution refused a $5 million gift from the descendants of a Confederate general who wanted a conspicuous memorial installed on the campus as a condition of their bequest. The committee unanimously said that would not happen and rejected the gift outright. Change is long overdue.

Posted : Jul 04, 2020 01:47


Hans Krol

Thank you for this service! www.ilibrariana.wordpress.com

Posted : Jul 04, 2020 09:08


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