Confederate Memorials Falling Faster Than Ever on U.S. Campuses

Universities across the U.S. are removing memorials associated with racism at a swifter pace in response to protests against discrimination and police brutality.

At least 10 tributes linked to white supremacy or the Confederacy were taken down from campuses in the month after George Floyd, a Black man, was killed by Minneapolis police, according to data compiled by Hilary Green, an associate professor of history at the University of Alabama. That compares with 19 from mid-2015 through 2019, a span that included a shooting at an African-American church in South Carolina and a deadly far-right rally in Virginia.

The changes reflect a broader reckoning that has put pressure on institutions from Wall Street to Silicon Valley to diversify their ranks and create more inclusive spaces for people of color. Worldwide, more than 100 names, statues and plaques linked to racism had come down as of June 30 since Floyd was killed in late May, compared with 97 in the earlier period, Green found. Dozens more are set to disappear.

Confederate Memorials Falling Faster Than Ever on U.S. Campuses

“To have these names on buildings without a fuller, more complex view at the least signals to students that there’s a continuing belief in those figures and their ideologies -- and particularly in their racial ideologies,” said Leslie Harris, a history professor at Northwestern University.

On U.S. campuses, many students, alumni and faculty support the moves. But others see them as a misguided effort to rewrite the past. President Donald Trump decried the nationwide effort in an Independence Day speech, lashing out at an “angry mob” seeking to “erase our history.”

Earlier this week, Washington & Lee University’s board of trustees said it set up a committee to examine whether it should change its name after mounting calls from faculty and students. The name honors George Washington, whose gift saved it during financial difficulty, and Robert E. Lee, the Confederate leader who served as the school’s president from 1865 to 1870.

“The board recognizes the dissonance between our namesakes’ connections to slavery and their significant contributions to the university,” the Lexington, Virginia, school said in a statement.

At the University of Virginia, a commission to examine the school’s role in racial segregation issued recommendations in March on handling past and future memorials. The guidelines include questioning whether the person’s main legacy was contested during their lifetime. An equity task force is now examining the report and plans to issue an opinion in August.

Such a process can ensure universities address concerns of marginalized students while decoupling memorial creation from fundraising efforts, said Kirt von Daacke, a history professor at the Charlottesville school and the commission’s co-chair.

Princeton University last month reversed course on a 2016 decision, saying it would remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from its public policy school and one of its residential colleges after trustees concluded that the 28th U.S. president’s “racist thinking and policies” made him “an inappropriate namesake.”

Sandblasting buildings and toppling statues isn’t enough, according to some activists and academics. Schools must address practices such as downplaying racist incidents or basing scholarships too heavily on merit rather than need, which skews the economic profile of the student body, said Marcia Chatelain, a Georgetown University history professor.

At Texas A&M University in College Station, students have been pushing since 1996 to put up a statue of Matthew Gaines, the freed slave who became a state senator and helped pass legislation establishing the school. A fundraising drive regained steam two years ago and surpassed the $350,000 goal when donations surged after Floyd’s death. On June 17, the university announced a commission to review its memorials amid dueling petitions for and against removals.

Last month, a #CancelYale campaign began trending on Twitter from conservative pundits urging the Ivy League school -- which they see as a bastion of liberalism -- to rebrand. The school was founded in 1701 and renamed in 1718 for Elihu Yale, a Welsh merchant who took part in the slave trade and donated to the institution.

The university isn’t considering changing its name, President Peter Salovey told the student newspaper last month. Yale declined to comment further.

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