Vanderbilt to delete ‘Confederate’ from dorm's name: Why now?

Vanderbilt University is erasing a commemoration of fighters for the Southern cause in the Civil War in an effort to promote inclusivity.

Ricky Rogers/File/The Tennessean/AP/File
Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., has announced it will replace the pediment on this dormitory, seen here in a 2003 photo, as it formally changes the name from 'Confederate Memorial Hall' to 'Memorial Hall,' the name it has used informally since 2002.

Vanderbilt University weighed in on the nationwide debate Monday, announcing that it will strike the word Confederate from the stone pediment of its "Confederate Memorial Hall," a student dormitory, in order to remove what the university's chancellor called "a symbol of exclusion."

In order to remove the moniker, the private university in Nashville is returning an 83-year-old gift from the United Daughters of the Confederacy, now valued at $1.2 million, for naming rights to the building. The total amount will be covered by anonymous donations designated for the purpose.

Universities across the country have been grappling with how to honor their own histories while acknowledging a racist past and welcoming increasingly diverse student bodies. School leaders have come down on both sides of the debate. 

The 2015 shooting at an African-American church in Charleston, S.C., energized calls for bringing down symbols of the Confederacy, from flags to monuments to school names, that critics claimed normalized white supremacist ideas.

Some have argued that striking the word "Confederacy" would give the false impression of progress. “If we remove the name it is very easy, by erasing that past, to assume that we have solved our racial problems,” University of Alabama history professor and associate dean Lisa Lindquist-Dorr told The Christian Science Monitor in February, explaining why she believed that her university's Morgan Hall, named for a Ku Klux Klan grand dragon, could keep its name.

Many white Americans have argued that America's race problem was resolved following the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. But ongoing inequities, including those voiced by the Black Lives Matter movement, underscore the remaining hurdles facing American minorities.

The resistance to change has taken many forms. In February, the Tennessee legislature made it more difficult to remove remnants of the Confederacy, requiring a two-thirds vote from the Tennessee Historical Commission to rename, remove, or relocate any statues, monuments, or other memorials on public grounds.

Nicholas S. Zeppos, chancellor of Vanderbilt, said in his announcement that he has long favored removing "Confederate" from the columned entryway of the freshman dormitory, saying that honoring rebels who backed the cause of slavery doesn't align with the university's commitment to inclusiveness.

The university attempted to rename the building to Memorial Hall in 2002, but the United Daughters of the Confederacy sued to keep the original name. A Tennessee appeals court ruled in 2005 that the university could remove the inscription only if it returned the group's 1933 donation of $50,000. After eight decades of inflation, the university is sending them $1.2 million, funded by "anonymous supporters who wish no credit, and only to do what is right and just," said Zappos.

“It’s been a source of controversy, contention, and disagreement ... over the decades,” Chancellor Zeppos told the Washington Post. “The question would always come back to, how can we be an inclusive, diverse environment, where everyone feels included, and everyone understands the importance of diversity, with this hall so named?”

Zeppos added that Vanderbilt will establish an annual conference on “race, reconciliation and reunion" in an effort to confront the questions raised by the debate. 

Other prominent US universities have also worked to confront their links to slavery and the Confederacy in the year since the Charleston massacre. Princeton University and Yale University both changed the titles of residential college leadership from "master" to "head of college," shifting away from the slavery-associated term.

Yale University continues to debate the name of one of its eight residential colleges, Calhoun College, named for statesman John Calhoun who fervently defended slavery as a "public good." Decades of student protests gathered renewed energy in the fall, when a petition demanding a name change gathered 1,500 signatures. Yale's president, Peter Salovey, announced in April that the name would be preserved, but on Aug. 1 he changed course, saying the university could reopen the question.

"Ours is a nation that continues to refuse to face its own history of slavery and racism," President Salovey said in a statement in April. "Erasing Calhoun's name from a much-beloved residential college risks masking this past, downplaying the lasting effects of slavery, and substituting a false and misleading narrative, albeit one that might allow us to feel complacent or, even, self-congratulatory. Retaining the name forces us to learn anew and confront one of the most disturbing aspects of Yale's and our nation's past. I believe this is our obligation as an educational institution."

Zeppos told the Washington Post that the university will have a temporary cover over the word "Confederate" before students arrive on campus this weekend. In future months, the school will install a new pediment calling the building by its new name, Memorial Hall. 

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