This Duke dorm is no longer named after a white supremacist former governor

(US Capitol)
This Charles B. Aycock statue, displayed at the U.S. Capitol, was a gift from North Carolina in 1932. (U.S. Capitol)

Duke University is removing the name of white supremacist leader and former North Carolina governor Charles B. Aycock from an undergraduate dorm, which will now be known as East Residence Hall.

Aycock, who served as governor from 1901 to 1905, has had his name affixed to the building for more than 100 years. But that is coming to an end after the university’s Board of Trustees voted to revert the building to its original name, East Residence Hall, after petitions from the student body urged the school to re-evaluate the former governor’s legacy.

“Today, 50 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and at the conclusion of a commemoration of integration at Duke, the values of inclusion and nondiscrimination are key parts of the university’s mission,” Duke President Richard H. Brodhead wrote in a letter to student body leaders Monday. “After careful consideration, we believe it is no longer appropriate to honor a figure who played so active a role in the history that countered those values.”

In the late 1890s, Aycock was a leading spokesman for the Democratic Party’s white supremacist activities in the state. He was a part of a campaign of fear and intimidation that sought to forcefully suppress the black vote and sow racial distrust.

According to an extensive News & Observer report on the rise of white supremacy in the state in the 1890s:

The white supremacy forces did not depend solely on newspapers, but also required a statewide campaign of stump speakers, torchlight parades and physical intimidation….

“The king of oratory, however, was Charles B. Aycock,” historian H. Leon Prather writes, “the Democratic Moses, who would lead North Carolina out of the chaos and darkness of ‘Negro domination.’ ” As he did throughout the campaign, Aycock mesmerized a standing-room only crowd at the Metropolitan House in Raleigh, pounding the podium for white supremacy and the protection of white womanhood.

In the state of North Carolina, there is also a high school named after Aycock, along with a monument in the state Capitol. An auditorium at UNC-Greensboro bears his name, and his words are engraved on the state education building.

A statue of Aycock also sits in the Statuary Hall collection at the U.S. Capitol. The overview of Aycock’s legacy on the Architect of the Capitol’s Web site completely overlooks the more unsavory — yet critical — aspects of his political career; it focuses instead on his role in expanding public education in the state.

How Aycock came to have a building named after him on the Duke campus appears to be something of a mystery. He was not a Duke graduate, nor was he personally involved in the university community, according to Brodhead’s letter. He didn’t donate money to have his name on the building, nor did anyone else on his behalf.

Historical records are similarly vague, the Duke Chronicle notes:

The decision to name the building after Aycock is touched upon only briefly in the minutes of the Board of Trustees’ September 1912 meeting, and no explanation is given for the choice.

“The committee appointed for renaming the new buildings reported as follows: that the East Dormitory be named ‘Aycock Hall,’ in honor of ex-governor Charles Brantley Aycock,” the minutes read, as found in the University Archive.

Duke University
Aycock Hall has been renamed East Residence Hall, effective immediately. (Duke University)

Duke, of course, is not the only institution — nor is North Carolina the only state in the South — that’s still dealing with the legacy of racism in the not-so-distant past.

In 2010, the University of Texas weighed renaming a dormitory that took its name from a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

And in 2007, the Democratic Party of North Carolina faced protests from African American members who wanted the party to rename its annual Vance-Aycock fundraising dinner. Three years after the election of the country’s first African American president (and after President Obama won the state of North Carolina), the name finally changed.

Some North Carolinians have argued that changing the name of Aycock Residence Hall would be akin to removing references to slave-owning Founders from the history books. In a guest column published by the Durham News, a local resident wrote:

Should Stone Mountain be demolished for showcasing notable Civil War Confederacy members? Should we expurgate any mention of the Founding Fathers from our lives because some of them – most notably Thomas Jefferson – owned slaves? Certainly not – we must always be reminded of the past, lest we repeat its mistakes, and the good qualities of many men outweigh their bad qualities.

Acknowledging the difficulty of these debates, however, Duke’s president said the university would not simply scrub Aycock’s name from the dorm and pretend it was never there.

“In keeping with our educational role, an explanation of the history of the building’s name will be displayed in the lobby of the East Residence Hall,” Brodhead said.

Duke’s Black Student Association — which worked with the Duke Student Government to pass a resolution in support of renaming the dorm in January — praised the university’s decision on Twitter.

Abby Phillip is a general assignment national reporter for the Washington Post. She can be reached at abby.phillip@washpost.com. On Twitter: @abbydphillip
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