• November 1, 2014

U. of Texas Regents Strike Off Klan Leader's Name From Dormitory

The University of Texas system's Board of Regents voted unanimously on Thursday to erase a painful reminder of the past by removing the name of a Ku Klux Klan leader and former law professor from a dormitory on the flagship campus here.

President William Powers Jr. recommended last Friday that the regents follow the suggestion of a 21-member review panel and rename Simkins Hall as Creekside Residence Hall.

The new name, which takes effect immediately, refers to the building's proximity to a creek that runs through the campus.

The two-story brick dormitory, which was built in 1954, had been named for William Stewart Simkins, a law professor at Texas from 1899 until his death, in 1929. Mr. Simkins, who was a colonel in the Confederate Army, helped organize the Klan in Florida after the Civil War.

During his 30 years at Texas, he wrote and spoke freely about having participated in violence against black people, university officials said.

A park adjacent to the dormitory was named for his brother, Eldred J. Simkins, a regent of the Texas system from 1882 to 1896 who also had ties to the Klan. The regents on Thursday also voted to rename that park as Creekside Park.

The history of the building's namesake came to light this past spring, when a former Texas law professor, Thomas D. Russell, wrote a paper that was published online by the University of Denver, where he now teaches.

"When I wrote the paper, I hoped to prompt a conversation about race and history and law, but I had no idea how widespread it would become," he said in an interview.

The motion to rename the building was made by Printice L. Gary, a member of the board.

"From time to time we are reminded of ugly periods in our nation's history regarding civil rights," said Mr. Gary, who is black. "The history behind the name is not in line with today's University of Texas and its core values."

Mr. Russell said that when he approached the University of Texas administration, in 1999, to suggest that the building be renamed, "the provost's office brushed me off, saying the university was going to tear the building down soon anyway."

Mr. Russell said that when colleagues asked why he had waited so long to publish his article, he replied, "I was waiting for Twitter to be invented." Discussions on social-media networks like Twitter have prompted a re-examination of similar naming controversies on other campuses, he said.

Comments

1. jack_433 - July 15, 2010 at 03:50 pm

This stuff is just so asinine. Shall we move to remove Byrd's name from all the pork items he got for WVA because he was in the Klan? Up in the state of Washington a number of years ago King County (where Seattle is) supervisors voted to rename the county after MLK, Jr. instead of the original person because the original owned slaves. However, in yet another bout of hypocrisy, they didn't petition the state to change who the state is named after, even though George Washington owned slaves. There is going to be major pushback on all this stuff. After this country has thrown billions of dollars in reparations via the Great Society and other very ill-conceived programs we continue to have this ridiculous guilt mentality. Couple that with the entitlement mentality and victim mentality and what do we have? We have a country on its last legs, just like the Roman Empire. Problem is, there is nowhere for the productive to go.

2. kellman - July 15, 2010 at 03:59 pm

Among the most productive people during this country's first century were the slaves. Those who benefited and continue to benefit from their labors ought to feel some guilt.

3. akprof - July 15, 2010 at 04:32 pm

Seems to me that the Simkins borthers remained proud of their activities designed ot subjugate Blacks - Byrd, on the other hand, renounced his Klan membership.

4. gilxx - July 15, 2010 at 04:39 pm

What is asinine are people dismissing the legacy of the Klan and other racist insitutions.

5. 22206165 - July 15, 2010 at 05:51 pm

Enough. There have been despicable people who have won honors:D.W. Griffith, who gave us the most racist movie in American film history; Nazis party members like Herbert von Karajan and Elizabeth Schwarzkopf; Ezra Pound got the America's greatest poetry award right after his Fascist dedication to Mussolini should have gotten him hanged. Leave the buildings alone...Stop trying to sanitize everything. Everyone who hates the Klan knows the truth and the others don't care. Hugo Black was a Supreme Court Justice and a Klansmen; so was Ty Cobb, and he's in the Hall of Fame. Pull the curtain and move on...

6. jdkaelin - July 15, 2010 at 06:28 pm

He must have been a Republican, because if he was a Democrat lke say former Grand Cyclops and Klaverb founder Robert Byrd, then a leadership position in the KKK would not prelude your name from baing plasterd on buildings and roads as Byrds has been all over the state of WV.

7. jairrels - July 15, 2010 at 06:37 pm

The University of Texas is correct not to honor someone who "wrote and spoke freely about having participated in violence against black people." I am unaware of anyone ever alleging that Hugo Black and Robert Byrd committed crimes or engaged in violence. Being a racist is one thing, but speaking freely (bragging?) about committing violent acts is another. I doubt very seriously if any university will name a building after Timothy McVey, so as not to sanitize history.

8. supertatie - July 15, 2010 at 07:01 pm

I agree that we should take the opportunity to sharply criticize attitudes and actions like this from the past. What worries me is that simply erasing it also eliminates the memory in the present and the future. Generations of college kids decades from now will not have the opportunity to learn about this.

I'd like to hear from colleagues about alternatives. Even if the building is renamed, what about a historical marker, placed visibly outside the building which acknowledged Mr. Simkins generosity to the University but rejected his Klan membership and his racial views?

Other options? I'm curious what people think.

9. fergbutt - July 15, 2010 at 07:16 pm

Democrats love to remind everyone that Byrd renounced his Klan membership long ago, but that hardly forgives his n-word slip in 2001, does it?

10. t_paine - July 15, 2010 at 08:10 pm

Very Stalinesque. Maybe we can airbrush out of all the old photos the people this weeny group consider unacceptable. Assume they are all evil. And you are virtuous, of course.

Historical context should not be such a strange concept on an academic thread.

11. jairrels - July 15, 2010 at 08:26 pm

To Supertatie, I understand your point, but I would want it (the marker) to acknowledge that he "wrote and spoke freely about having participated in violence against black people" or words to that effect and that a public university (as a matter of policy) cannot sanction criminal behavior and/or honor someone committed to illegal acts of violence. By illegal I mean, for examples, acts not committed in self-defense, not committed as a part of war, soldier to soldier etc.

12. d_and_der - July 15, 2010 at 08:34 pm

#5 is correct. "Stop trying to sanitize everything." If we re-write history today, someone will want to re-write history again 100 years from now to reflect whatever the "pop-culture" of the moment is. All countries, including America have enormous autrocities for which they should be ashamed.

I find it strange the way we "pick and choose" what we want to "sanitize." I could name many more autorcities of equal or greater shame, yet no one ever seems to discuss them.

13. jthelin - July 15, 2010 at 09:00 pm

I was Chancellor Professor at the College of William & Mary in Virginia, circa 1981 to 199. I also was President of the Faculty Assembly and Faculty Liaison to the Board of Visitors. Now, here's a question: A president of W&M in the antebellum period, Thomas Dew, was the foremost proponent and academic analyst and advocate of slavery. Should we erase him from the books and from the wall of W&M presidents? How about Woodrow Wilson? Check out his views on race and gender? Even President Eliot and President Lowell of Harvard forbade African American students at Harvard from rooming with white students. So, I am open to suasion -- but tell me the standards for going back in time. Thanks.

14. jairrels - July 15, 2010 at 10:05 pm

To #13, did President Woodrow Wilson (and the others that you named) admit to committing acts of violence and criminal behavior? Simkins claimed to have robbed a train! The governor of Florida ordered guns for the militia and Simkins admitted to robbing the train and he was not punished for his crime !! I'm fine with talking about Simkins from a historical perspective. Keep him in the history books (what few he is in, if any). I'm not, however, in favor of honoring him with his name on a dormitory at a public university. According to what I've read, his name was only added (long after he died) for the sole purpose of showing opposition to integration.

For that matter, although I'm fine with talking about Nat Turner, John Brown, Timothy McVey, and the 9/11 bombers from a historical perspective, I will not support naming a dormitory after them at any university, public or private because I cannot excuse violent acts. So the standard for me "going back in time" concerns whether the person committed violent criminal acts against innocent people.

15. cwill32 - July 16, 2010 at 05:50 am

Let's please stop pretending that the KKK was some benign social club that just so happened to dislike black people; it was a terrorist organization that openly promoted to killing of innocent men, women and children as a method to reinforce a doctrine of white supremacy. Take a look at Paul Ortiz's book, Emancipation Betrayed to learn something about the KKK and its history of racial terrorism against African Americans in Florida. The University of Texas is right to distance itself from Simkins and this legacy.

16. supertatie - July 16, 2010 at 06:45 am

cwill32 - I haven't read a single thread that has suggested anything other than that the KKK's views - and the actions they were willing to take in pursuit of them - were despicable and evil. We've all seen the photographs, and they rival the Nazis, if not in magnitude, then in intent.

The observation that others are trying to make here is that once the sanitization of history starts, it is like a flame that consumes everything that is no longer viewed as ideologically "pure."

In fact, we often see this impulse in reverse, when convicted felons have turned their lives around in prison, and their supporters claim that they have "rehabilitated" themselves, "served their time," "paid their debt to society," etc. And the same debate takes place.

My point is not that they have, or haven't. It is that people are complex, and a society which purports to teach its future generations about good and evil needs to acknowledge both, particularly when they appear in the same person. Rather than blurring the distinction between good and evil, the lesson here is that all humans are capable of evil. Even - and sometimes especially - when they are motivated by moral certitude.

That is a humbling revelation, and one not taught with much clarity on college campuses today, which (for example) tend to ignore the shocking human suffering inflicted on a massive scale by governments led by ideologues pursuing utopic redistributionist visions.

In other words, no one is advocating that a university say, "Hey, it's true that Simkins hated blacks, but he was a nice guy and gave a lot of money to the university," anymore than we would say, "Well, it's true that Mao was responsible for the starvation and death of tens of millions of his own countrymen. But he was an advocate of the people."

And no one says that, do they?

17. tptrekker - July 16, 2010 at 08:19 am

There is a huge difference between rewriting or airbrushing history and renouncing its atrocities. How would you like to be
Jewish and living today in Dachau, Germany, or Auschwitz, Poland?
How would like to be a person of color assigned to live in a dormitory named for a man devoted to an organization the reason
for existence of which was to do violence against people like you?

18. clarklibrary - July 16, 2010 at 08:50 am

I agree with you #14 and #15. Naming a building after someone is usually to honor them and this guy does not need to be honored. It would be tantamount to naming a building the Adolf Hitler Building. For shame! Do we want to honor terrorists and murderers in this country. I think not!

19. mhedstrom - July 16, 2010 at 09:01 am

This action has nothing to do with sanitizing history. We need to study our past in all its ugliness as well as its beauty. When I teach US history to college students, I always include material about the Klan and the ways racial violence were used to maintain white supremacy. The rather insignificant figure of Prof. Simkins could make for a nice illustration of this aspect of our past. I hope UT professors use his story to educate students about the history of their university and its role in perpetuating white supremacy in Texas and the nation. No one is calling for erasing this history. In fact, I think we need to talk about it much more than we do.

But we don't need to honor this man or celebrate this history. Today's UT is a very different place than in Simkins's day, still shaped by that past but not limited by it. Today's UT should remember Prof. Simkins as a part of its history, and as a cautionary tale. But it should in no way honor this man whose legacy is so profoundly at odds with current university values. Congratulations to President Powers and the Board! This makes me even more proud to be an alumnus!

20. t_paine - July 16, 2010 at 10:02 am

"When I teach US history to college students, I always include material about the Klan and the ways racial violence were used to maintain white supremacy."

Great unbiased in-context approach to the history of the South.

21. rhancuff - July 16, 2010 at 10:27 am

#20, US history is more than the history of the South.

22. rmwbebe - July 16, 2010 at 10:39 am

As a student (not at UT) I do not think renaming the dormitory is "sanitizing" history. The world has changed so much. Cultures have merged, globalization, social networking connects us despite all other differences, and renaming the buildings lets go of the past. I am sure the past will still be discussed, and the renaming of the building will be part of the university's history. I will tell this story beginning today by sharing it on Facebook. I will let people know that UT acknowledges the past, recognizes the present, and is looking to the future. History will not change nor the historically impact of someone's actions because a building is renamed. The university has to change with the rest of the world. I am sure the culture, student body (more diverse), and curriculum has changed since the days of Simkins. The renaming of the building reflects that change.

23. alvitap - July 16, 2010 at 01:58 pm

When representatives of hate are honored that disempowers everyone, including the institution that supports past hate. Byrd is/was a living example of honor. He repudiated his past actions. Did Simkins ever do that in his lifetime? No? Well, the people who are alive today can correct past and ongoing hate by dismantling the ideological monuments built to honor them. UT is correct in removing the name representing hate. It is no different than when the Russians toppled Lenin or the Iraqis toppled Hussein. Get it?

24. 22118130 - July 16, 2010 at 02:24 pm

One thing not mentioned in this article is that the building was named after Simkins in 1954, apparently in response to the Brown v. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. That means the Board of Regents probably know of Simkins' ties to the KKK and naming the building for him was a defiant move.

I went to the University of Texas Law School, which was just up the hill from Simkins Hall. That was 35 years ago. At the time, I don't think anyone knew who Simkins was. Thomas D. Russell did us all a favor by bringing that history to light, and the Board of Regents acted appropriately in removing Simkins name from the building. My grandfather fought against the KKK many years ago, any anything that can be done to destroy the vestiges of that pernicious movement needs to be done.

25. professor44 - July 16, 2010 at 09:59 pm

As a sociologist and a teacher of race it never ceases to amaze me the lengths some individuals (namely whites) will go through to distance themselves from the consequences of historical and present day racism in this country. To suggest that removing a renowned racist's name from a building named in his honor is "sanitizing" history, or that taking such a step is paying tribute to both a victim mentality and white guilt is infuriating to say the least. What in the hell do you mean by billions of dollars in reparations paid through the Great Society Jack_433? Are you referring to welfare? Do your math - there are more whites on welfare than any other racial group in this country. They are after all, 63% or more of the U.S. population. I find it interesting that many people would find it unconscionable to suggest that Jewish people "get over" the Holocaust, but have no problem telling Blacks to "get over" the racial problems that continue to plague this country.

26. 11126724 - July 17, 2010 at 12:03 pm

Amazing how many academics cannot tell the difference between a book and a building. We can't change history, and shouldn't try to "sanitize" the history books. But by the same token, we should not memorialize the despicable persons in history by continuing to honor them with buildings named after them. They deserve the calumny of the history books, which explain what they did, but do not deserve to have their names on buildings, with no explanation of why they are so memorialized.

Use a little common sense people. And get over the implicit racism that justifies so many of the Republican comments in this thread.

27. jamccain - July 17, 2010 at 05:11 pm

Wow what a glamarous and popular conversation. 100 years from now this same conversation will be going on. Very unfortunately "Racial problems"; "acts of hatred and violence"; and debates like this will continue to persist.

28. jthelin - July 17, 2010 at 06:09 pm

Various responses -- one commentator noted that Woodrow Wilson had not bragged about, e.g., some blatant wrong doing. But, the fact that it was implicitly ok with him to counsel an admitted Black studnt to go elsewhere than Princeton, or to out of hand delegate women to second class national and academic citizenship. It's not as bad as Simkins, but it bears note.

At nearby (to me) Transylvania University purged one of its halls of the portrait of alum Jefferson Davis. Wait! He was an alum, he was distinguished, he was president of the CSA. His views on slavery were odious -- but, look closely, at the exclusion and restriction such states as Illinois also placed on African-Americans. I do not like Simkins or his values, but stepping outside of my views, was he important to the University of Texas?

Frankly, I like the anecdote I have heard is that the U o f Maryland belatedly named its law school building in honor of an applicant it rejected -- Thurgood Marshall. I am not sure of that is true, but I hope so.

Another dilemma: some years back when I was a profesor at William & Mary, a building named in honor of W&M alum and US President John Tyler was renamed in honor of a contemporary business exec and donor -- Wendy Reves. So, heritage and national service were replaced by commercial wealth and donors. Is this a great country or what?

29. joannahadji - July 26, 2010 at 10:17 am

Congratulations UT Austin!!!!

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