OPINION: Renaming buildings can’t delete history

India Kirssin | Managing Editor

What’s in a name?

This age old question has become a hot button issue on many college campuses across the country as students and faculty push to change the names of buildings commemorating US leaders who supported slavery and pushed systemic racism forward.

Last week, Yale announced it would rename Calhoun College because John C Calhoun’s view of slavery as a “positive good” doesn’t reflect the values of the school. The college will now be named after Grace Murray Hopper, a computer scientist and US Navy Rear Admiral.

As schools wrestle with how to incorporate monuments of the past into the modern world and rising racial tensions of today, the “renaming revolution” has swept through the South, where universities have a variety of Confederate symbols across campus.

In August of 2015, The College of William and Mary (W&M) decided to remove a plaque honoring students and faculty who fought for the Confederacy from its main building (the Wren Building) and move it to the library as part of a living history exhibit.

When I visited Williamsburg, Virginia that October, I happened to be walking through the Wren Building when an elderly gentleman asked a student helping to direct people where the plaque was. The student explained that it had been taken down to be moved to another location. He also added that the school was changing the plaque to honor those who fought on both sides of the war.

The elderly man, not thrilled by this answer, raised his voice, stood his ground, and lectured the student, myself and my friend about the history and culture of the South and how disrespectful it is to act like the war and our history never happened. At first, I was appalled by the speech. Partially because of the outburst and partially because of the viewpoint. I judged this man. I wrote him off as a racist, stuck in his ways with nothing better to do.

As I have read about more and more college’s changing the layout and culture of their campus by simply changing a name, I have been brought back to this man’s argument time and time again.

The argument on either side walks a fine line. There is no place in our country for the celebration of racism, intolerance or white supremacy. Many believe that keeping the name Calhoun College, or Tillman Hall (at Clemson), celebrates these things. But celebration and remembrance are two totally different things. Remembering a person or an event doesn’t mean you are celebrating it.

And, as the elderly gentleman pointed out, we can’t erase our past. The “out of sight, out of mind” approach will only make us feel better. But it doesn’t mean we have changed as individuals or as a country.

We also need to consider our historical figures in the right context. While their opinions are deplorable from a 21st century point of view, when they were alive their thoughts and actions were valid. In some cases, their beliefs represented an entire half of our country. They may not be looked upon favorably now, but they obviously did something to contribute to our society and to be immortalized in textbooks and buildings.

If we continue to have the “you’re on the wrong side of history, so you’re out” mentality, we will lose all accountability of our past and for our future. Walking past buildings engraved with the names of Confederate leaders and slave owners may hurt, but it should be a reminder that this is where we came from, and we can not go back.

This being said, there needs to be a balance. I’m not advocating naming every new college building after someone of the past we disagree with. Pick newer, more inclusive leaders to carry the battalion forward. Just don’t force the past out.

David Wilkins, Clemson’s faculty board chairman, said the following when announcing that Clemson would not be changing any of its historical building’s names: “Every great institution is built by imperfect craftsmen. Stone by stone, they add to the foundation so that over many, many generations, we get a variety of stones. And so it is with Clemson. Some of our historical stones are rough and even unpleasant to look at. But they are ours and denying them as part of our history does not make them any less so.”

ikirssin.chronicle@gmail.com