Why keep a KKK leader's name on a University of Alabama building?

Purging universities of white supremacist monuments is not always the best way to combat racism, say some historians. 

Dave Martin/AP
Univ. of Alabama student Will Gonzalez of Orlando speaks to other students who gathered for a march on the Rose Administration Building to protest the university's segregated sorority system on the campus in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013. About 400 students and faculty marched across the campus to oppose racial segregation among its Greek-letter social organizations.

The English Department at the University of Alabama housed in a building named for a Ku Klux Klan (KKK) grand dragon – and some historians say this is a good thing for US racial equality. 

A group of students on the Tuscaloosa campus is seeking to change the name of Morgan Hall, named in 1911 for state Senator and KKK leader John Tyler Morgan, to Lee Hall, in honor of the late author, civil rights advocate, and University of Alabama alum Harper Lee. As of Tuesday morning, a student-generated online petition to rename the building had more than 2,300 signatures. 

Morgan, who served as a general in the Confederate Army, was a six-term US Senator from Alabama who ensured funding to rebuild the university after it was burned to the ground during the Civil War. He was also one of the most outspoken white supremacists during the Jim Crow era. 

Renaming a building from a racist demagogue to an American literary hero – seems like a no-brainer, right? 

Not exactly. Some professors and historians say Morgan Hall should be left alone. 

And these Morgan Hall supporters are not racists or secret KKK enthusiasts, University of Alabama history professor and associate dean Lisa Lindquist-Dorr tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview Tuesday. They are “well-meaning people who are in favor of diversity and inclusion,” not supporters of Morgan’s racist past.

“If we remove the name it is very easy, by erasing that past, to assume that we have solved our racial problems,” says Prof. Lindquist-Dorr. Similarly, after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, whites across the country breathed a sigh of relief in assuming America’s "race problem" was solved. 

“When you rename, you facilitate forgetting,” says Alfred Brophy, a professor at the University of North Carolina law school with a focus on southern legal history, in a phone interview Tuesday. “Building names are gauges of how we think, but renaming doesn’t solve racism.” 

Dr. Brophy offers a third mode of thought in the binary building-renaming conversation: sometimes renaming is warranted. It all depends on context. 

UNC-Chapel Hill's Saunders Hall was rightfully renamed last year, says Brophy, because the original naming was used to specifically honor William Saunders’ leadership role in the KKK. In Morgan's case, the building was likely named as a response to the senator’s efforts to rebuild the school after the Civil War and to guarantee funding for public education in the state. 

Controversy over racist symbols and statues in the South has intensified after a self-professed white supremacist murdered nine black parishioners at a Charleston church in June. More recently, students at Princeton University have fought to rename the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in light of the late president's segregationist legacy. In December, the New Orleans City Council voted to take down four city monuments, including a statute of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. 

And while Brophy says there is “very little to anything honorable about [Morgan],” he also says that professors and students at the university need to use a contextual analysis. 

“What was known about someone at the time, and why was the naming done?” asks Brophy. “The context will tell us different stories about different people. We need to have a public, sustained conversation. Why did we once think he’s honorable?”

But Kalyn Lee (no relation to Harper), an organizer for the student group We Are Done, which is calling for a more inclusive campus, disagrees. To her, Morgan Hall is a slap in the face, not a conversation starter.

“We are trying our hardest to get campus change and we are experiencing a lot of backlash and delay. Even when Morgan’s portrait was removed in December, a lot of people lost it,” she tells The Monitor. “There is a difference between historical knowledge and glorifying this person.”

And even if the building was intended to honor Morgan’s generous relationship with the school and not his racism, the context doesn’t make a difference to student protestors.

“Do you glorify a person who was able to foster money into the university, but was also a horrible person?” asks Lee. “It’s kind of like Hitler. Although he was able to reestablish the [German] economy, he also killed over six million people. So what’s more important, money or human life?” 

Notably, the naming debate hasn't really caused a serious stir on either side of the argument.

Outside of a few professors and historians, there are no student groups vocally supporting Morgan Hall to remain in the Senator's name. And the "Lee" Hall camp isn't that strong either. Petition author Jessica Hauger has been working to change Morgan Hall to Lee Hall for more than a year, with little success. It was only after Harper Lee's death Friday that Ms. Hauger's efforts gained a newfound traction.

And even now, the online petition had signatures from less than seven percent of the student body. One conservative student organization told the Christian Science Monitor they were unaware of the dispute until asked about it Tuesday. 

But for Kalyn Lee, the lack of action has caused her to rethink her alma mater.

“Just looking at how many people are apprehensive about having the building renamed – it makes me question. What is excusable by the university? This is one thing that shouldn’t be excused.” 

If the school refuses to rename Morgan Hall, or its other buildings with contentious histories, such as Nott Hall, named after Josiah Nott who believed whites and African Americans were different species, or Manly Hall, named after University president Basil Manly who believed slaves were a God-given right, then We Are Done requests educational plaques. Each building with a racist namesake should give a full disclaimer of the person’s damaging role in history. 

And while Lee and Lindquist-Dorr are pushing for two different outcomes, they share the same goal: to have a sustained conversation about America’s racial history.  

“At this point, the university has completely ignored the person behind the building,” says Lee.

And “I want that conversation,” agrees Lindquist-Dorr. “My goal is to have a dialogue with students about Morgan’s distasteful past.” 

But to the professor, it is a conversation that is best facilitated by keeping the Morgan Hall title. “Every couple years we have students who look around campus and realize the disjuncture between what the university has valued in the past and what they value today. The values that they lived by are not the values that we live by. We have to understand the process of social change,” says Lindquist-Dorr. “By erasing the buildings names and putting someone else up, we deprive future students of this process.”

People in the future are going to be appalled at some of our practices today, adds Lindquist-Dorr. "We need to have humility."

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