On and off campus, pressure mounts to rename several buildings at JMU

Jackson Hall, as seen on June 17, is under construction. (Photo by Tristan Lorei)

By Bridget Manley, publisher

In a public ceremony in the fall of 1917, six buildings on Bluestone Hill — the center of campus for what was then the State Normal and Industrial School for Women — were renamed. And for the last 103 years, four of the six have borne the monikers of men who were slaveowners or confederates. 

Three of them — Matthew Fontaine Maury, Turner Ashby and Stonewall Jackson — took up arms against the United States of America in the Civil War. Jackson, the confederate general, enslaved humans. Ashby was called “the dark knight of the confederacy” and once organized a mob to terrorize an abolitionist. Maury was a chief propagandist for the confederacy, traveling to Europe to turn European countries against the United States. The fourth building, Harrison Hall, is named after a Harrisonburg native and University Virginia professor of Latin and Greek, Gessner Harrison, who had as many as nine enslaved people working for him and whose four sons fought for the confederacy.

Their legacies were rewritten by those seeking to tell what has become known as the “lost cause” narrative that sought to alter people’s perceptions of history. That narrative also fueled abuse of African Americans.

In the decades since the naming ceremony, the university integrated. Societal views evolved as black Americans fought for civil rights and equality. Eventually, principles of diversity and inclusivity became the themes JMU embraced.

But the buildings stood, and the names remained unchanged.

While the university has explored and discussed the building names in recent years, the last month of protests over systemic racism in the country has renewed calls by JMU students, alumni and employees, as well as community residents, to rename those buildings.

But university leaders have stopped short of joining those calls. JMU President Johnathan Alger sent a message to the JMU community June 12 saying the university is “actively reviewing this issue, understanding a sense of urgency of action as well as the sensitivity and importance of this subject for many members of our community.”

Calls for change

Hundreds of people on and off campus are seeking to hurry that process along.

The JMU Student Government Association is working on a Bill of Opinion regarding the renaming of Maury, Jackson and Ashby halls.

JMU sophomore and Student Government Association Senator Ryan Ritter said the calls for name changes have been around for some time, and when the Bill of Opinion was posted for students and alumni to sign in support, the response was overwhelming.

“We don’t feel that it’s appropriate anywhere to honor those who dedicated their lives to furthering racist institutions, and oppressive institutions,” Ritter said. “And especially treasonous institutions against the United States. We found it very interesting and contradictory that at a university named for the chief architect of the United States Constitution that we have buildings on campus that are honoring those who fought to commit treason against it.”

Student leaders aren’t the only group petitioning the university to pull the names. The JMU Political Science Department last week sent a letter demanding the removal of the names. All but one member of the department, a faculty member with a conflict of interest, signed it.

Crafty activists last week taped over two of the names on signs — Jackson and Ashby — and temporarily renamed them “Nat Turner Hall” and “Harriet Tubman Hall,” along with reasons why the buildings should be renamed. And at a protest last Friday on the JMU campus, students called for the immediate removal of the names.

Caitlyn Read, University Spokesperson for JMU, said the renaming of university buildings is the responsibility of the University’s Board of Visitors. Read confirmed that board’s next meeting is in September.

“We know there’s a sense of urgency in the community on this issue. We also know that it’s incredibly sensitive, and it’s incredibly important,” Read said.  “And frankly, there are members of our community on all sides of this issue. And so we are taking a very deliberative process driven approach to any sort of a decision. So, it’s also really important to know that the Board of Visitors which is the University of Governing body has the ultimate decision-making authority in this sort of matter. Our administration is not in power to, nor would they ever act on their own on this. They would never act unilaterally. It’s the Board of Visitors’ decision.”

Read confirmed that donors also have been included in discussions about name changes.

“There are alumni, there are donors, there are employees, there are students who are on all sides of this issue. We are hearing all sorts of feedback, all sorts of input, and I will say that this survey mechanism that we set up – this opportunity for input that was sent to faculty, students  and staff – that is not the only avenue for input,” Read said. “Our administrators – I would say our abnormally accessible administrators – are receiving volumes of emails and phone calls and petitions and we see the social media activity. So, we know that there are alumni in their donors that are making their voices heard. The administration is aggregating all of that.”

Maury Hall was named after Matthew Maury, who led the confederates’ naval forces during the Civil War. (Photo by Bridget Manley)

The university also received criticism this week for language contained in a survey seeking input about the buildings. Faculty and students called out some of the wording as romanticizing the three confederate leaders, including describing Maury as being “celebrated.”

Read defended the document, saying that one of the goals was to provide context.

“The intent of the document was twofold: first, there was information on the confederate leaders for whom the buildings were named, and that piece was provided to encourage reflection,” she said. “The second piece of it was the open-ended questions which were meant to offer JMU faculty, staff, and students the avenue to provide input on this really important issue.”

She said the information was compiled by history faculty who have worked for years “to critically examine the history of JMU and the building names.”

“It was their scholarship, and it provided the history of these men in the context of more than 100 years ago when these buildings were originally named,” Read said. “It was meant to encourage reflection, and what we’re seeing from the early survey responses is that it achieved that goal and that a lot of people said ‘I did not recognize this, I did not know that, and therefore here’s what I now think.’ And so it was motivating and getting people to critically reflect and in that way served its goal.”

The university has been examining the history of racism on campus as part of a multi-year task force, and part of that work has been investigating the names of buildings and the people whom they were named for, said Meg Mulrooney, professor of history and associate vice provost for university programs. 

Mulrooney has been working on the Campus History Committee and said the group has been engaged in two projects as part of unearthing the history surrounding the names of the buildings on campus.

They’ve been mapping every name on campus as part of a “commemorative landscape,” and Mulrooney said there has been a growing awareness on campus that the university does not now hold the same values as those for whom the buildings were named.

And the history of the naming is just as complicated, Mulrooney said. 

“Naming of buildings should be understood as a political action, right, they’re not just coincidences,” Mulrooney said.

John Wayland and the buildings

John Wayland was a prominent local historian in the Valley and one of the first professors at the Normal and Industrial School for Women. Hired in 1908, he grew up near Dayton, attended Bridgewater College and received his Ph.D. from the University of Virginia.

Wayland was also a major proponent of the lost cause narrative. An honorary member of the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, Wayland served as adviser for the Lee Literary Society (named after Robert E. Lee) at the Normal School, and his father served under Stonewall Jackson.

“And so, he has an affinity to the lost cause,” Mulrooney said.

Wayland became what would now be known as the “chair” of the social studies department, where he was in charge of creating the school’s curriculum.

One of the ways he taught was by taking students on field trips — to the Lincoln Homestead, the Turner Ashby monument, and into the Blue Ridge Mountains where the British royal governor and explorer Alexander Spotswood and the Knights of the Golden Horseshoe crested the mountain, Mulrooney said.

Wayland also believed in naming buildings for people considered to be of historical significance. 

“He’s very clear in his speeches and lectures and so forth that he gave, that he considered buildings and names — basically monuments, they are monuments — another pedagogical tool,” Mulrooney said.

Mulrooney said Wayland and the librarian/registrar Mary Bell came up with a list of possible names for the campus buildings together, but, “undoubtedly, because of the gender hierarchies at that time, he was driving the list,” Mulrooney said.

The students voted from a list of fourteen names provided by Wayland and Bell, and selected six of them, including Maury, Ashby, Jackson and Harrison. The other two were Spotswood Hall, named after the British explorer and governor, and Cleveland Cottage, which honors Annie Cleveland, an instructor of English and French at the Normal School who died in 1916. (While Cleveland Cottage was razed, another building completed in 1936 was named Cleveland Hall for Cleveland’s sister, Elizabeth, who also taught at the Normal School.)

The six buildings were officially named in the fall of 1917, which came 52 years after the South surrendered and eight years after the Normal School opened. And the four named for confederates and slaveowners have remained for 61 years after school desegregation began, 42 years after the university stopped resisting integration and fully integrated and 155 years after the confederates surrendered.

Changing the names

Mulrooney said if the university decides to change the names of the buildings, community involvement is key. She said the university should work with groups in the Valley who have been giving voice to the history that white supremacy tried to squash — groups such as the Harrisonburg-Rockingham County NAACP, the Northeast Neighborhood Association and the Shenandoah Valley Black Heritage Project.

“I think it’s clear that the associations that those names conjure are negative, and they do not align with the contemporary JMU. At all. We are engaged in this process now,” Mulrooney said. “We have been for several years.”

Steven Thomas, organizer with the Northeast Neighborhood Association, said the group welcomes the opportunity to participate in discussions about renaming the buildings.

“For all of many of our lives, it has been the region’s Black population and largely from the northeast community who have had to venture onto the campus for various community programs, sporting events, etc., and be dehumanized, disrespected, and insulted by the current names of those particular buildings every single time that we did,” Thomas said in an email in response to questions from The Citizen.

Thomas said the Northeast Neighborhood Association is not pushing for a specific individual to include in discussions to rename the buildings but that he expects “we will be advocating on behalf of the cause to have at least one of the buildings renamed after a local African American trailblazer.”

He also said JMU has yet to reach out to the Northeast Neighborhood Association.

“NENA has not been contacted by anyone at JMU thus far to play any part whatsoever in such a truth and reconciliation process as the one we are encouraging through a campus-community dialogue on these renamings,” he wrote. “While we are disappointed by this fact, we are unfortunately unsurprised by it, when we consider that the JMU administration has yet to publicly acknowledge” other ongoing efforts.

Specifically, he pointed to the Harrisonburg-Rockingham County chapter of the group Coming to the Table and its work with JMU students to help attract more signatures to a Change.org petition calling for the renaming of Jackson, Ashby and Maury halls.

Robin Lyttle, president of the Shenandoah Valley Black Heritage Project, said she agrees that community groups like NENA and the NAACP should be included in these conversations. She said a number of influential African American teachers in the Valley could be honored with a building name.

“I would like to defer to the community. We certainly had great educators in our area,” Lyttle said, “Is it a Valley question? Or are we just talking about Harrisonburg history?…Certainly Mary Fairfax was a wonderful educator. She was strict, so some people don’t have such fond memories, but she was a great educator… as was Lucy Simms, from what I understand. There’s W.T. Harris, who was the principal, and Eugene Wilson and George Newman. I mean, there are great names throughout the Harrisonburg area.” 

Meanwhile, Ritter, the JMU student senator, said the building renaming should be done first but efforts shouldn’t stop there. Students are calling for broader changes in how the university recruits to allow for more diversity among the students and ranks of faculty, he said.

“JMU has one of the lowest minority student rates in not only in the Commonwealth of Virginia, but also the United States,” Ritter said.

Last fall, 76.4% of JMU’s 19,654 undergraduate students were white. The percentage of white students was similar for graduate students at 73.6%, according to the university’s enrollment figures. On average, the percentage of white undergraduate students nationwide in 2016 was 56%, according to the most recent numbers available through the National Center for Education Statistics.

“This is due to a couple of different things: funding from the General Assembly, lobbying efforts that JMU subscribes to,” Ritter said. JMU tends to have a “target demographic that they go towards. Due to a lower endowment and a lack of funding by the General Assembly they stick with that target demographic in order to ensure that we maintain our student population, and that they don’t have to branch out too much.”

Thomas, meanwhile, said if the university’s aim is to repair the historical harms, university leaders must engage in conversations with groups like NENA moving forward. 

“We have observed multiple official statements from the JMU president’s office which appear to make a calculated distinction between Harrisonburg’s African American community and African American students at JMU by referring to the stress, pain and anger ‘within our Black community,’ in reference to its African American student body,” Thomas said  “For far too long, this way of thinking has been fostered within the Black student body and the Black student mind at JMU in attempts to undermine city-wide African-American unity. Because we have seen and experienced all of this before, we will be intentional in our outreach to prevent any further divide-and-conquer tactics in the future, as well.”


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