When Vanderbilt University administrators decided last week to remove the name “Confederate” from a dorm on the Peabody campus, history came full circle .
On Jan. 24, 1905, a mysterious fire raged through Nashville’s Roger Williams University, a school that was founded in the aftermath of the Civil War to educate freed slaves and their families. Some accounts blamed a defective chimney for the inferno, but shady circumstances surrounded the blaze.
University officials hoped to rebuild the part of campus that the blaze destroyed, but in May of that year, another fire tore through the school. A few years later, school officials decided to pack up and move across the Cumberland River. The university later became a part of American Baptist College, a school that despite educating many prominent African American clergy throughout the country, has always been strapped for cash. Peabody College, founded to educate white teachers, was constructed on the old Roger Williams campus. In 1979, it became a part of Vanderbilt, one of the wealthiest universities in the world.
In January 1935, 30 years after the first fire ripped through Roger Williams, Confederate Memorial Hall opened on the Peabody Campus. The United Daughters of the Confederacy raised $50,000 toward the construction of the dorm, which they saw as part of a broader agenda to help “young women of Confederate ancestry obtain an education.” And so, on the grounds of a former black college, there sat a dorm memorializing the Confederacy.
History, the old saying goes, is written by the victors. At Vanderbilt, it was a patrician establishment that gave the university a good part of its Southern identity. But last week, when Vanderbilt removed “Confederate” from the name of the Peabody dorm, calling it instead “Memorial Hall,” a new class of victors made its impact felt. Gone were those stewards of the old South, whose leadership of the university was often obliviousrightly or wronglyto the norms of the outside world. In their place are an earnest, media-savvy group of student leaders, administrators and the chancellor himself, all of whom are committed to turning Vanderbilt into a national-caliber university with an emphasis on diversity and sensitivity. The people who ran Roger Williams University might have been astonished.
“This has been an issue consistently for the last 14 years with our students, prospective students and our faculty,” says Michael Schoenfeld, the school’s vice chancellor for public affairs (and New York native). “Changing the name is a part of an ongoing effort to make Vanderbilt a greater, more dynamic, more inclusive university,” he says.
Removing a word from a dorm designation doesn’t hallmark the beginning of a new era, but it does reflect a pattern. Recently, Chancellor Gordon Gee named David Williams the school’s new general counsel and vice chancellor for student life at university affairs. He is the highest-ranking black administrator in the history of the university. Last spring, CNN and The Wall Street Journal spotlighted Gee and the school’s efforts to recruit more Jewish students to the university. And earlier this year, not yet a full year after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, students elected Samar Ali, a young woman of Islamic faith, as president of the Student Government Association (SGA).
Ali was involved with the SGA three years ago when it passed a resolution calling for changing the name of Confederate Memorial Hall. At the time, the previous chancellor, Joe B. Wyatt, not known for his progressive impulses, showed no interest in making the change.
While the name issue waxed and waned over the years, it never went away. Nevertheless, Gee’s ultimate decision has met with very little controversy. Most importantly, when members of the school’s conservative board of trust were briefed on the issue, they were supportive as well, Schoenfeld says. (It’s worth mentioning that shortly after he arrived in Nashville, Gee applied for and received a membership at the Belle Meade Country Club, an institution notably lacking in diversity.)
Even among the school’s relatively conservative student body, there seem to be few signs of discontent over Gee’s initiative. While The Vanderbilt Hustler editorialized against the decision, its argument lacked real indignation and hasn’t seemed to rally any sizeable opposition. Meanwhile, Samar Ali, the SGA president, reports that no students have come to her to complain about the name change.
“I don’t think that really anybody here thinks of themselves as coming from the Confederacy,” she says. “It’s an outdated term.”
The members of United Daughters of the Confederacy disagree, along with their male counterparts in the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and remain furious over the university’s decision to sterilize the name of a building that their organization helped bankroll. The fact that the university failed to brief the group on the development before it was announced didn’t help matters.
“I’m extremely offended,” says Carolyn Kent, a former division president of the United Daughters of the Confederacy who went to graduate school at Vanderbilt. “Vanderbilt is a wonderful school, but this is very offensive to all of us who are from the South. I have always been proud of Vanderbilt, but now I am ashamed at them for caving in to people who don’t know their history.
“They always want to associate the Confederacy with one thing,” she says, apparently referring to slavery. “But that’s not what the war was over. It was over money and states’ rights.”
Attorney Wes Shofner, a graduate of Vanderbilt Law School and former president of the Battle of Nashville Preservation Society, agrees. “I think things should be preserved and not removed,” he says. “The name was removed in the name of diversity, which I find ludicrous. The removal of one is not being diverseit’s being exclusionary. It’s the antithesis of the word. I find that removing things in the name of tolerance and diversity is a dangerous impulse.”
Even if the Confederacy did try to protect the sanctity of states’ rights and the possibly unconstitutional expansion of federal powers, it’s difficult to convince prospective African American students and their parents that the Confederacy was formed for something other than perpetuating slavery. Numerous students and alumni say they can’t recall any black students hanging their hat at the dorm.
“I’m happy about the name change,” says Brandi Sanders, an African American junior from Milwaukee, Wis. “I didn’t want to stay in a place called Confederate Memorial.”
University officials say that while they are sensitive to the concerns of the school’s African American students, they also made the change for fear that the dorm’s name promoted all the wrong stereotypes of Vanderbilt. And if university officials want Vanderbilt to be regarded in the same league as Duke, Northwestern and Stanford, it needs to increase its minority population. Right now, only 6 percent of Vanderbilt students are black, a number that school officials concede is low.
Meanwhile, the United Daughters of the Confederacy is exploring legal options in the wake of the name change. They claim their donation of $50,000 toward the construction of the dorm is worth about $4 million today, and they’d like some compensation.
Members shouldn’t hold their breath. It’s doubtful that the school would have changed the name of the dorm if they felt they’d be financially liable for doing so. But if they did have to make some sort of payment, Vanderbilt would likely consider that a small fee to pay for being able to re-write history the way they see it.
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