Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Vanderbilt to Remove 'Confederate' From Building Name
Adam Tamburin
8:27 p.m. CDT August 15, 2016

(Photo: Andrew Nelles / The Tennessean)

Confederate Memorial Hall opened 1935 with support from United Daughters of the Confederacy.
Vanderbilt first sought to change the name in 2002.

Starting in 2005, the university began referring to the building as Memorial Hall.

To change the name, Vanderbilt raised $1.2 million to repay the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

Vanderbilt University will repay an 83-year-old donation in order to remove from a residence hall what its leader called "a symbol and a reminder of racism, slavery and a very, very bloody Civil War."

Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos made the announcement Monday, capping a 14-year effort to rename Confederate Memorial Hall. The building, which has had that name etched into the stone above its entrance since it opened in 1935, stands in the heart of the university's freshman commons, and has frequently spurred debate about the university's attitude toward an increasingly diverse student body.

In an interview with The Tennessean, Zeppos — who arrived on campus as a law professor in 1987 — said he had long been in favor of changing the building's name.

"It's a symbol that is, for many people, deeply offensive and painful," Zeppos said in the interview. "And to walk past it or to have to live in that space is really something that I just don't think is acceptable."

The United Daughters of the Confederacy originally donated $50,000 in 1933 toward the building’s construction and naming rights in order to honor Confederate soldiers who died during the Civil War.

Vanderbilt previously attempted to rename the building Memorial Hall in 2002, but the Tennessee Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy sued to keep the original name. A Tennessee appeals court ruled in 2005 that Vanderbilt could remove “Confederate” from the inscription only after it had returned the donation at its current value.

Anonymous donors recently gave the university the $1.2 million needed for that purpose; the Vanderbilt Board of Trust authorized the move this summer.

Doug Jones, the Nashville attorney who represented the Daughters of the Confederacy against Vanderbilt, called the move "a real slam on the history of our country."

“All it was was just a simple monument for the boys in Tennessee that died” in the Civil War, Jones said, adding that the name was not connected with slavery. “We think rewriting history’s just terrible. And I think it’s a very sad day for a school with that kind of reputation to be condoning that."

Universities across the country have faced similar decisions as they re-evaluated the implications of their buildings' names. Students and officials at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro have spent months pushing to remove the name of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a founder of the Ku Klux Klan, from a campus building. MTSU and the Tennessee Board of Regents approved the change, which now goes before a state panel.

Zeppos flatly rebuffed the criticism that changing the name of a residence hall would compromise the university's approach to its long and complicated history.

"We are not saying this is not part of Vanderbilt's history," he said. "I think we teach history by how we talk about these events.

"I don't think that that (name) was really teaching anyone history."

The longstanding effort to rename the residence hall took on renewed urgency over the past couple of years, as universities across Tennessee and the country grappled with the shadow of racism and slavery on their campuses. At Vanderbilt, founded in 1873 just eight years after the Civil War ended, the name change follows a series of changes made over the past year to address diversity, including the addition of a chief diversity officer to the university's leadership team.

In 2005, Vanderbilt officially began referring to the building as Memorial Hall, although the word Confederate remained on its facade. Students, faculty and high-ranking administrators argued passionately to remove the word at a town hall on the subject last fall.

Ariana Fowler, president of Vanderbilt Student Government, praised the university leadership for the decision to formally rename the residence hall.

“This action demonstrates the administration's attentiveness to student needs and concerns, as well as sets a great precedent for advocating on behalf of those who may feel marginalized on our campus,” Fowler said in the university statement. “This is an excellent next step in the direction of becoming an institution that not only admits diverse students, but ensures their care and support — one who is eager to eliminate any barriers that may stand in the way of such a goal.”

Zeppos said the decision to remove the mention of the Confederacy from the building spoke to the courage of students, faculty and staff who spoke out against it for years.

"I hope that they feel as if they've made a big difference in Vanderbilt and in Vanderbilt's history themselves," he said. "It hopefully says we have listened, we have made changes. But I don't think we should assume that our work is completed in any way."

Crews were already working Monday night to cover the name over the building’s entrance.

Reach Adam Tamburin at 615-726-5986 and on Twitter @tamburintweets.

Vanderbilt University began referring to Confederate Memorial Hall as Memorial Hall in 2005. The year was wrong in an earlier version of this story.​

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