JMU honors five people with new building names

From left: Dr. Joanne Gabbin, Robert Walker Lee and Doris Harper Allen, three of the five members of the JMU community whose names are now on campus buildings. Courtesy photos.

By Bridget Manley, publisher

On Monday, Feb. 19, the JMU Board of Visitors voted unanimously to permanently change the names of three buildings once named for Confederate officers, closing a chapter in the school’s history and advancing toward its goal of a more inclusive, welcoming and diverse campus.  

All five people honored by the buildings’ new names are African Americans who made significant contributions to JMU; four are still living, and two still teach at the university.

After the Feb. 19 vote, the temporary signs outside each building had been replaced with permanent signage, and the names became official on campus.

Dr. Sheary Darcus Johnson, photo courtesy of JMU

“My initial thoughts were, ‘Wow,’” said Dr. Sheary Darcus Johnson, the first Black graduate of JMU. “I was surprised, yet honored that someone thought about me to name a building after me.”

Darcus Johnson, along with professors Dr. Joanne V. and Dr. Alexander Gabbin, local activist Doris Harper Allen and former maintenance worker and beloved member of the Bridgewater community Robert Walker Lee, were honored by JMU.

The process of renaming the buildings and addressing the history of the building names has been an ongoing process for the Campus History Committee and leadership at JMU, according to JMU President, Dr. Jonathan Alger.

Alger told The Citizen that as part of a years-long effort to address and correct past injustices on campus, they asked the JMU community – students, faculty, staff and alumni, as well as community members – for ideas about whom the buildings should be named for.

University officials said the response was overwhelming, with numerous suggestions.

Alger said during the renaming process, emphasis was placed on candidates’ contributions to the university.

“Part of what was important to me, and those of us in leadership, is also to be looking for the connection to James Madison University,” Alger said. “I felt it was important, if you look at the people that are being recognized, all of them have made significant contributions to our university community, and collectively, they represent the different types of constituencies – faculty, staff, students and alumni.”

Gabbin Hall

Dr. Joanne Gabbin, photo courtesy of the Gabbins.

When Drs. Joanne and Alexander Gabbin, married professors, first came to campus, they had no idea they’d still be there more than 35 years later.

At the time, both were tenured professors at Lincoln University, an HBCU in southern Pennsylvania. When Alexander was recruited to JMU, the couple felt they had to give it a year.

“We said we would not give up the opportunity,” said Dr. Joanne Gabbin. “[Alexander] knew he could stay at Lincoln with his Ph.D., or he could come to a place like James Madison University that would have required that Ph.D., and impact students as well.”

A professor of English, Dr. Joanne Gabbin has overseen growth of two programs at JMU campus that have gained wide acclaim – JMU’s Honors Program (now the Honors College) and the Furious Flower Poetry Center, the nation’s first academic center for Black poetry.

Dr. Alexander Gabbin, photo courtesy of the Gabbins.

Recruited to teach accounting at JMU in 1985 as a Commonwealth Visiting Professor, Alexander Gabbin went on to become the first Black director of the School of Accounting in the College of Business. He now serves as the Academic Unit Head for the School of Accounting.

“Joanne and Alex Gabbin are both very well-known and beloved faculty members, and have also been very engaged with our community for decades,” Alger said. “There was a very strong consensus about honoring them, and even though they are both still working here, I think the feeling was, ‘We want to do this now while both of them are here to appreciate it,’ and it felt very fitting.”

Dr. Joanne Gabbin said she is humbled by the recognition. 

“For me, my legacy was always going to be my students,” Gabbin said. “The students I have taught, the students I have mentored, the students I have even influenced during my 36 years here as a faculty member – I really saw them as a large part of that legacy. Now, this building will also be a part of my legacy. It’s just so gratifying and humbling.

Gabbin has taught for years in the building now named for her and her husband.

“When I came to interview, I remember the head of the department brought me on campus, met me at the bottom of the quad, and walked me around into the quad,” Gabbin said. “I couldn’t have known as I walked past these buildings named for Confederate officers that my name would one day be there on one of those buildings. How could you even imagine that?”

She hopes students, faculty and staff might find a more welcoming atmosphere on campus where the echoes of the Lost Cause don’t stand in silent contradiction to the ethos of equitable higher education.

“For the students who are now here, and for the students who will come, they will feel that now JMU is a much more welcoming place because JMU has recognized African Americans who have contributed to their community, to the state, and to the nation. And I am so, so honored to be among those people,” Gabbin said.

Darcus Johnson Hall

Before becoming the first Black graduate of Madison College (JMU’s name until 1977) and integrating the university, Dr. Sheary Darcus Johnson integrated Harrisonburg public schools.

Her father petitioned the Harrisonburg School Board to allow Johnson to go to the high school, and in 1964, Johnson, along with several other Black students, desegregated Harrisonburg city schools.

“Once the other African American families in the community found out that I was going to Harrisonburg High School, some of them wanted their child to go also,” Johnson said. “So there were actually six of us who integrated Harrisonburg High School.”

Johnson says that while life was different at the high school, she was blessed to have found people who took her under their wing and befriended her. She enjoyed the challenging work, and participated in theater during her high school years.

She went on to become the first Black graduate of Madison College and spent her life as a librarian – teaching library science at VCU, writing successful books and starting non-profits to help others work towards their dreams.

“[Johnson] is someone who was a real trailblazer, and it was especially fitting, in her case, because she also became an educator herself,” Alger said.  “And so, she really personifies the mission of James Madison University.”

Johnson said that it was only years after she graduated that she understood the impact she has had on the university.

“I’ve been told many times that – well, students have told me that they are thankful that I’ve paved the way, and how much they respect what I did, and what it provided for them. And I just tell them I’m glad,” Johnson said.  “I’m glad I was able to do that. I did not set out to do that, but I’m glad that the impact was a positive one for them, and that they can move forward in their lives. Because they have the ability, they have what it takes.

“JMU gives that kind of credibility to your training, to your preparation, that helps to move you to higher levels,” Johnson said.

Harper Allen-Lee Hall

Doris Harper Allen, photo courtesy of JMU.

Alger says that the administration and Campus History Committee also wanted to honor “unsung heroes.”

“These are positions that often don’t get recognized,” Alger said. “They aren’t mentioned on the front page of the newspaper, but are very important to the university and who represent that spirit of service and hospitality for which JMU is known.”

Doris Harper Allen grew up in Harrisonburg but was barred from attending Madison College because of segregation. She worked as a cook to the president before attending Marshall University and becoming a teacher. Allen became instrumental in the revitalization efforts of the Northeast neighborhood, and has written a memoir about her life growing up in Harrisonburg.

In a statement to The Citizen, family members said of the honor, “The family of Doris Harper Allen expresses their appreciation and excitement over the naming of Valley Hall after their mother. Ms. Allen no longer conducts interviews and is dedicating her time toward her next book and a mini-documentary.”

“I am so happy that Doris Harper Allen is still living and can enjoy the fruits of her labors,” Gabbin said.  “She wrote two self-published books that talked about her experiences as a girl growing up in Harrisonburg, and also her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. So, if it had not been for her writing up this history, we wouldn’t even know that she was once the cook in the house of the president of JMU.”

Robert Walker Lee, photo courtesy of JMU.

Alongside Harper Allen, the third new building name honors Robert Walker Lee, who worked at JMU when it was called the State Normal School in the early 1900’s. Lee would leave inspiring notes on the blackboards for students, and, as far as JMU historians call tell, was the school’s first Black employee. He was highly regarded in the Bridgewater community during his life. Lee died in 1929.

“The records show that when he died, his funeral service was one of the largest on record in the community,” Alger said.

“[Allen and Lee] represent individuals who were very active in the community,” Alger said. “In the case of Doris Harper Allen, in the city of Harrisonburg, who was a tremendous community activist, and of course, Robert Walker Lee, in Bridgewater, who was very well-known.”

The campus moving forward

Alger says that work for racial equity at JMU has only begun. In the last few years, the university has taken a hard look at racism on campus, and now will begin the work of addressing equity in every aspect of university life.

To accomplish that, Alger said, a Task Force on Racial Equity will build on previous work.

“What I’ve asked them to do is take a comprehensive look at every aspect of life the university,” Alger said. “That includes student life, both in and outside the classroom. That includes faculty and staff hiring and promotion and retention. It includes campus climate. It includes alumni engagement. Athletics. Every aspect of life at the university.”

There are a dozen working groups within the task force that will make recommendations to university officials about diversity, access and inclusion on campus.

“This is a strong commitment in our strategic plan,” Alger said.

Plans are also in the works for a formal naming ceremony in the fall, with all of the living honorees in attendance. Details will be announced at a later date.

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