This week, the University of Texas began to wonder whether to remove the name of William S. Simkins from one of its dormitories. Simkins was a confederate soldier, a professor in UT’s School of Law (from 1899-1929, and most problematic for UT today, a member of the Klu Klux Klan. The building was named for Simkins in 1955 in recognition of his work for the University — and perhaps symbolically to identify Texas’s desire not to integrate.
The controversy came to light when Professor Tom Russell, formerly as faculty member at UT published on SSRN the paper Keep the Negroes Out of Most Classes Where There Are a Large Number of Girls’: The Unseen Power of the Ku Klux Klan and Standardized Testing at The University of Texas, 1899-1999 . In the abstract, Russell writes: “During the 1950s, the memory and history of Professor Simkins supported the university’s resistance to integration. As the university faced pressure to admit African-American students, the university’s faculty council voted to name a dormitory after the Klansman and law professor.” Later, in an interview with Texas Lawyer, Russell says: “I think it’s inappropriate for the University of Texas administration to continue to honor Professor Simkins by keeping his name on the dormitory.”
I am quite sympathetic to Professor Russell’s feeling that Simkins name is inappropriate on a building dedicated to equality and enlightened education. I am afraid, though, that through efforts like these, we will look back on our history and wonder why we felt the need to purge it so. History is made up of the good and the bad, of good people making bad decisions, of bad people making thoughtfully astute and beneficial decisions, and everyone else caught in the milieu of time and happenstance. On the one hand, we cannot and must not belittle the real offense that African Americans must suffer by the presence of a name connected with a vile racist past. But on the other hand, does removing the name really bring us comfort that the University has disassociated itself with its racist past. For as long as there have been people that have crossed the University of Texas campus since 1955, the building will forever be called Simkins Hall; I imagine that for some generations that will continue. Indeed, short of imploding the building from the grounds and eradicating its memory from the space it occupies, Simkins will forever be known as a part of the UT campus, both the prejudicial Simkins and the University contributor.
But perhaps more problematic than the persistence of memory, is the loss of memory. Maybe we don’t feel comfortable talking openly about a person’s indiscretions, particularly once they have died. I imagine that there might be some hesitancy in leaving Simkins name on the building in order to have a frank honest discussion of race and our past. We choose to remove rather than discuss, and in doing so, deprive our children of the mistakes we have made. Robert Penn Warren wrote beautifully on this point in talking of the role of purge tendencies in the anti-slavery context. Warren writes:
“Man [can be described] as a total abstraction, in the pure blinding light of total isolation, alone with the Alone, narcissism raised to the infinite power….But social problems are rarely to be solved by men totally outside of society — certainly not by men not merely outside of a particular society but outside of the very concept of society. For if all institutions are “dirty” why really bother to amend them? Destruction is simpler, purer, more logical, and certainly more exciting. Conscience without responsibility — this is truly the last infirmity of the noble mind.”
Yes. Destruction feels cleaner. But if it feels cleaner its because we have grown uncomfortable with the dirt we can see. There is more dirt around — we have not yet had time to notice (or maybe never will notice) its impact, or to yet be uncomfortable with its role in our own development.
So instead of renaming the building or taking Simkin’s name down, do something enlightened. Build a prominent display in the building that speaks openly and honestly about the struggles the UT campus has had with race; maybe add a name to the building of a person that fought for civil rights in the State of Texas to pair along side Simkins – perhaps Marshall and Simkins Hall. Take the opportunity to recognize our vile past, and talk openly about it. Our future generations will be better for it. In each of these things, the University will be responsible with its past, which includes honoring for a time a person whom the University is not proud of in every respect and recognizing that the University can mature beyond the narrow ideas of a few.
Update: There is a nice write up on the controversy at the faculty lounge here, along with a set of links to the controversy. Tom Russell in comments provides more information on the controversy as well as a call for responses to the Texas Board of Regents planning to meet on the issue soon.
Update 2: Al Brophy at the Faculty Lounge talks about the role of historical memory in decisions to take down emblems from our racist past here. In the comments, Tom Russell provides some thoughtful responses, to which i will respond soon. This is a great discussion!
Quote from Robert Penn Warren, The Legacy of the Civil War