when to rename a building

Ashe Schow argues that university administrators shouldn’t give in to protesters who want to rename campus buildings because that will just encourage the protestors to demand more, and more extreme, concessions. And maybe that’s true, and maybe that’s a good reason to turn aside such demands; but I think the genuinely substantive questions at stake here are actually pretty difficult.

When we see that a building — or any other public edifice, for instance a park or garden — has been named for a person whom we find in some way immoral, an appropriate first response is simple curiosity. Did the people who honored this guy by plastering his name on something public know of his evil actions and offensive beliefs? Did they share those beliefs? Did they approve of those actions? Did they, perhaps, not really approve but also not really care all that much?

Also: What positive reasons were there for choosing that name? Sometimes it’s obvious, as when donors want their own names plastered on the buildings they paid for. Sometimes we don’t have ready access to records that would let us know. Why, when Edward Harkness gave Yale a pile of money to build residential colleges, did they decide to name one of them after John C. Calhoun, a passionate defender of slavery? Possibly the thinking went no further than this: that Calhoun was a Yale graduate who went on to become a famously powerful and influential Senator and a Vice-President of the United States. There could have been few better-known graduates of the university.

And Calhoun, when Calhoun College opened in 1933 and for decades afterwards, was widely believed to be a great American. Indeed, in 1957 a committee overseen by a young senator named John F. Kennedy named Calhoun one of the five greatest Senators. So even after Brown vs. Board of Education and at the outset of the Civil Rights era, few people of influence in American government thought Calhoun’s pro-slavery commitments were sufficiently troublesome to prevent him from being honored as one of the greatest of Senators. Perhaps they thought, Ah well, people didn’t really know better in those days.

But here I think we need to make a vital distinction: between those who held what we now believe to be a profoundly mistaken view, or tolerated such a view, simply because it was common in their time, and those who were the architects of and advocates for such a view. The general forgiveness of society has been extended to millions of members of the Soviet Communist Party, and the Nazi Party, but the places once named for Adolf Hitler have had their names changed, as have Stalingrad and Leningrad.

Similarly, I have argued against those who would excuse Margaret Sanger as merely a creature of her time: “Sanger did not just ‘hold eugenicist ideas’; she was one of our nation’s most passionate and widely-respected advocates for those ideas…. It was this ceaseless, tireless, and very successful advocacy for some very nasty beliefs and practices that sets Sanger apart from others who happened to ‘hold eugenicist ideas.’”

If I were to apply this same logic to John C. Calhoun, I don’t think he would come off very well. Calhoun did not merely accept slavery, he was the single most passionate and influential advocate for slavery in his era. He believed that slavery is a “positive good”, railed against “the fell spirit of abolition,” and called those who believe that slavery is sinful “this fanatical portion of society” who wish to perform their insidious “operations” on “the ignorant, the weak, the young, and the thoughtless.”

I would be appalled at the naming of a college for Margaret Sanger. I don’t see how I can hold that view and accept the naming of one after John C. Calhoun. And if I were to agree that it’s just fine to have a college named after Calhoun, I’m not sure what I would say to a Russian who once more wanted a city named for Lenin. How bad does a social system have to be before its chief celebrants are deemed unworthy to have buildings named for them?