Renaming Campus Spaces
Listening sessions on renaming spaces took place throughout January 2021 and the Spring 2021 semester (open to Hollins students, faculty, staff and alums). A full report on the Listening Sessions, released in conjunction with President Hinton’s Fall 2021 report on inclusion, is now available.
In September 2021 President Hinton formed the Reconciliation: Campus Spaces task force. The task force is charged with determining criteria for evaluating existing campus space names, and applying those criteria to make a recommendation regarding Tayloe Gymnasium to the Hollins Board of Trustees and to President Hinton. You can read more about the task force here.
Why are we talking about renaming?
The Working Group on Slavery are in support of considering renaming certain buildings on the Hollins campus. In accordance with President Mary Dana Hinton’s commitment to supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion at Hollins, we believe this work is both urgent and important.
In August 2020, President Hinton shared her initial report, “Diversity, Equity, and Justice at Hollins” including key learnings and a list of next steps for action and an accountability structure. Included in the key findings was a sense of urgency around renaming: each stakeholder group reported a need to actively explore the names of our buildings and engage a process for renaming.
This conversation is not new. Black students, faculty and staff have spoken out to describe the discomfort of a campus environment marked by America’s history of oppression, exploitation and discrimination. Faculty and students have worked to uncover the history of enslaved workers at Hollins, and have been urging change. More recently, since June 2020 almost 1,700 people have signed a petition to rename the gymnasium currently named after George Plater Tayloe, who was both a significant benefactor of the university and a prominent slaveholder in the Roanoke Valley.
Hollins does not yet have a renaming committee, nor a fully developed plan or process. Members of the Working Group have been reviewing efforts to rename spaces in universities and other communities, and we have learned that successful renaming requires broad participation and extensive dialogue. With these sessions, we hope to continue and broaden informed conversation in the campus community; we also hope to get feedback to provide the administration with specific recommendations for developing a thoughtful, educational and participatory process.
As you walk around a college campus, have you ever wondered how the buildings got their names?
You probably assumed they were named after someone who was important in the college’s history. And you’re right. Founders, historical figures, or major donors often have a building, road, department, memorial, or even an open space named after them. The goal is to honor a person’s legacy or contributions to the college. But look into the histories of these names, and you’ll find that some either promoted or benefitted from slavery and White supremacy.
Many of America’s colleges and universities were founded before the Civil War and depended upon the labor of enslaved people to build and maintain their campuses. College presidents bought and sold land worked with slave labor to turn a profit to fund their schools. And wealthy White students, faculty, and administrators brought enslaved people from their own households to college campuses.
But even after slavery ended, many political and educational leaders promoted White supremacy by denying admission to Black students or employment to Black professors. The term “White supremacy” might make you think only of violent extremist groups, but according to the Oxford Dictionary, “White supremacy” is to “the belief that white people are superior to those of all other races, especially the black race, and should therefore dominate society.” So the belief that college campuses were a place for White people – and not a place for Black students or professors – is White supremacy. For many colleges, it wasn’t until the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s that Black people were allowed to be on campus not as an enslaved person or an employee, but as a student or faculty member. And often those first Black students were met with either violent White mobs or ongoing harassment because people opposed opening these all-White spaces to them.
Today campuses are more diverse. In fact, every college likes to brag about how diverse their students and faculty are. But just opening up these spaces to Black students and faculty hasn’t fixed the wounds left by the hundreds of years of slavery and White supremacy. White students and faculty are still the largest group on most college campuses. Even the majority of buildings and spaces are named after White people.
Which brings us back to the people behind these building names. For years, Black students and faculty have gone to class and walked by spaces dedicated to Confederate soldiers, Klu Klux Klan leaders, segregationists, and slave owners. And it’s not just in the South. Schools across the country are dealing with their history of slavery and White supremacy.
In a July 2020 article in the news magazine Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, Dr. Donna Y. Ford, a distinguished professor of education at The Ohio State University, sums up the experience of walking past these spaces saying, “Far too many people don’t understand the psychological dilemma that these building names put on students who just want to go to class and learn and get their degrees. There’s trauma there.”
Hollins University has connections to enslavement that impact the university throughout its history. Hollins from its earliest days was dependent upon enslaved labor. When it was founded as the Roanoke Female Seminary in 1839, enslaved people were referred to as “Servants” (Oast, 2016). This term was used in many written documents from this time period. By 1842, Valley Union Seminary was established in its place and run by Baptist minister Joshua Bradley. This institution was attended by men and women, but they were physically separated into the Men’s and Women’s departments. In 1846, the school was distressed financially, and the trustees appoint a new hire, Charles Lewis Cocke, to run the school. Cocke grew up on a plantation, and when he arrived at the Seminary along with his family, he also brought a number of enslaved people. While there are no records showing that the school ever owned slaves, it is a fact that the school’s founder did, along with other members of the Hollins faculty. In addition to using the labor of those enslaved by the management, the Seminary also leased slaves from nearby landowners. By 1852, the school became the Female Seminary at Botetourt Springs and 1855, a sizeable donation from Ann and John Hollins – their $5000 would be worth well over $100,000 today – resulted in better financial stability and the renaming of the school to Hollins Institute.
As historians of the period know, actual records can be hard to come by: enslaved people were rarely paid and are therefore mostly absent from the surviving business records of the school. Some names and ages can be found using Census records, but the narratives of many of those who labored at Hollins who were not White and who were not free remain, unfortunately, incomplete. There are several stories and images of African Americans on this campus, starting with those who were enslaved. Old photographs in the archives show women carrying baskets of laundry. Two predominant individuals are Caesar Morton and Clement Read Bolden. Caesar Morton was born a slave in Appomattox County, Virginia. It is unclear when the Morton family came to Hollins, but Caesar’s father is mentioned in the ledgers of Hollins Institute in 1866, and although Caesar Morton often said that he had worked at Hollins ever since the first year Lee surrendered, College records do not name him until 1869. Clement Read Bolden was born in Henrico County, Virginia in 1846. He and his family were enslaved by Clem Read, the father of Tom and David Read. When he was a small boy, he (along with his father, mother, and siblings) came to David Read’s home in Roanoke County. Charles L. Cocke hired the whole Bolden Family (rented from David Read) around 1857 (Clem would have been 11 at the time). Young Clem waited on tables in the Hollins dining room and would later be pressed into service for Confederate forces in 1863 while he was at Hollins.
Hollins is now part of Universities Studying Slavery (USS), a group of 55+ universities dedicated to collaborative research. In April of 2018, the Spring Conference of USS was held at Hollins, with 80 attendees from 11 U.S. states and the United Kingdom.
Education and Open Dialogue: renaming can be a complex process, affecting people across a university’s community. To reach a solution that fully expresses the university’s mission and values, we must ensure that everyone understands the process and that all feel heard during that process.
Research: to help those involved make an informed decision, careful research of the public record must be done to help us understand the history and context of existing names, and of future names being considered.
Coordination: multiple university constituencies are involved when a space is renamed. For example, all who use that space (student, faculty, staff) ; but also the Buildings & Grounds department, External Relations, Public Relations and of course the President and Board of Trustees. Coordinating this takes time, but it also ensures that we come up with a process that is fair, manageable, and lasting.
Participation: the work of renaming should be done by a group including as many of these constituencies as possible.
Examples from other universities show that this is often a three-part process:
- First, a campus-wide group (with community input) determines criteria for assessing existing building names;
- Then comes the process of applying those criteria to any specific building(s) to be considered for renaming;
- Finally, if the building is to be renamed then the community considers potential new names and a decision is made.
As the Hollins Campus has grown and changed its buildings have also changed, including their names. For example, in 2004 the Fishburn Library was rededicated as the Richard Wetherill Visual Arts Center and the Eleanor D. Wilson Museum. Both new names relate to an alumna’s generous endowment to renovate what was originally a 1950s library, into the new arts building. Fishburn Library had been named in dedication to Junius Parker Fishburn (1895-1954), a Hollins trustee. The name change is noted on a plaque in the main lobby of the Visual Arts Center, and the original plaque of dedication from 1955 can still be seen in the side entrance foyer. The plaques explain the renaming process and don’t erase the name or naming history of the building.
On the first floor of Swannanoa Hall, a plaque details the story of three occasions when the building has been renamed: in 1955, 1972, and again in 2006.
No single source contains a fully researched history of campus buildings and their names, just as no single source contains a fully researched history of slavery at Hollins. Much work remains to be done.
Several of the oldest buildings on campus were built before the end of the U.S. Civil War in 1865, making it highly likely that they were constructed using the labor of enslaved people: East dates back to 1856, while Main was completed in 1861.
Tayloe Gym is named after George Plater Tayloe, whose leadership of the Hollins Board of Trustees began with Valley Union Seminary in 1843 and continued until his death in 1897, along with other political and philanthropic causes. George Tayloe’s wealth derived from his ownership of several Virginia ironworks, cotton plantations in Alabama, and the labor of more than 200 enslaved people.
The Cocke Administration building is named after Charles Lewis Cocke, who is often referred to as the “Founder” of Hollins. Cocke, who became superintendent of of the school in 1846, arrived on campus with a number of enslaved people owned by the Cocke family.
How Can You Get Involved?
Learn more: our website includes a list of news, reports, scholarly articles and other resources.
Listen and participate: Hollins staff, students, alums and faculty are encouraged to engage with the work of the Reconciliation: Campus Spaces Task Force. Read more about the task force here.
The Working Group on Slavery and Its Contemporary Legacies is a group of Hollins staff, faculty and students examining the history behind buildings and space names on our campus, as part of our overall mission to study and share Hollins’ historical connections to enslavement and the contemporary legacies of slavery on campus. To join our mailing list or contribute your time and labor to the group, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.