Confronting the Ghosts of Our Institutions Past, Present, and Future: Building Names and Race at Two Deep South Campuses

AHA Session 70
Friday, January 7, 2022: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Rhythms Ballroom 2 (Sheraton New Orleans, 2nd Floor)
Maria Seger, University of Louisiana at Lafayette
Trevian Ambroise, University of Louisiana at Lafayette
Theodore Foster, University of Louisiana at Lafayette
Laura Hughes, University of Louisiana at Lafayette
Michael S. Martin, University of Louisiana at Lafayette
Marissa Petrou, University of Louisiana at Lafayette
Justin Wolfe, Tulane University

Session Abstract

This roundtable/experimental session proposes a panel discussion of the experiences of two building renaming task forces at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and Tulane University, both in South Louisiana. Following the national Movement for Black Lives in 2020, each administration independently empaneled a task force of historians, scholars of cultural studies, students and others to research the history and meanings of campus buildings names and make recommendations. Though working entirely independently, the two task forces had strikingly similar experiences both in the archives and in the broader University and public arenas. Each found that even relatively recent guidelines from other institutions had to be replaced with principles that better reflect the historical and contemporary understanding of the race in American history and society. Each found archival research that forced them to reconsider not only building names, but many other aspects of their history, operation, identity, and self-image. And each faced enormous challenges in reconciling the identity and stated mission of their respective institutions with the reality of race in the their past, present, and future.

The Universities’ own archives provided much of the basis for understanding the lives of building namesakes. But unearthing the stories of these figures and the process that led to their elevation revealed unexpected clues to the inner workings of the construction of the University’s identity. Documents showed administration and faculty gathering to make key decisions as to what information would be made public, shaping the institution’s public image for decades. The language that surrounded and continues to surround discussions of certain figures reveals a sometimes deliberate attempt to bury unwanted aspects of their past, to recast them as more palatable characteristics, or to deny that their true past has any connection to the institution that is honoring them. And yet digging deeper into the biographies of namesakes also sometimes revealed multiple layers of historical meaning that made it harder, not easier, to draw clear conclusions about the moral status of their elevation as campus icons.

Drawing on examples from other universities and new scholarship in history, cultural studies, and Black studies, each task force drafted its own principles for evaluating the harm caused by racist icons woven into the fabric of the University’s campus. Both strove and sometimes struggled to balance the insights, conceptual framework and technical terminology of this growing scholarship with the public nature of the debate over building names and the need to remain transparent, comprehensible and convincing to a wide variety of University administrators and stakeholders in a formal report. The discussions and debates over how to reconcile these two different worlds paralleled the broader national debates over the legacies of race, racism, and whiteness in society, and brought the University into a sometimes difficult but illuminating dialogue with the surrounding community.

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