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Duke history professors ask to rename building honoring white supremacist who dedicated ‘Silent Sam’ statue

Duke University's East Campus (iStock). (stevehong/iStock)

While the University of North Carolina is grappling with what to do with a Confederate statue toppled by protesters last week, its neighbor Duke University is also confronting its complicated past — and present.

Historians at Duke have asked the university to change the name of the Carr Building, which houses their department. It honors the wealthy industrialist Julian Carr, who donated the land that now comprises Duke’s East Campus — and who made a now-infamous speech dedicating the Confederate statue known as “Silent Sam” at UNC.

Carr’s remarks were sweeping and personal. Confederate soldiers had saved the Anglo-Saxon race in the South, Carr said in his lengthy speech, and “to-day, as a consequence the purest strain of the Anglo Saxon is to be found in the 13 Southern States — Praise God.”

He also talked about a “pleasing duty” of his own: “I horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds, because upon the streets of this quiet village she had publicly insulted and maligned a Southern lady.”

Protesters at UNC alluded to Carr’s words on one of the banners held aloft as Silent Sam was being pulled down last week.

At Duke, his legacy has been debated for years, as reported by the Chronicle, the student newspaper. Carr is one of many names and symbols of the past that universities and other communities across the country are reconsidering; in polarized times, making such changes is seen by some as urgently needed and by others as a heavy-handed cultural rewriting of history.

People have expressed anxiety and concern about the Carr name in the past, said John Martin, a professor of history and chair of the department. But after a rally by white nationalists and white supremacists over a Confederate statue turned violent in Charlottesville last year, a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee at Duke was vandalized, and the university’s president removed the statue and initiated a process to examine the historical legacy of names and monuments on campus.

A framework for changing names and memorializations at the university grew out of that, Martin said, so the faculty followed that process.

The history department faculty voted unanimously at the end of the spring semester to rename the Carr Building to honor a longtime professor, Raymond Gavins. He was the first African American professor of history at Duke and taught there 45 years before dying in 2016. “He was a mentor to generations of undergraduate and graduate students,” Martin said, “a superb scholar, a very quiet and humble but powerful individual.”

Michael Schoenfeld, a spokesman for Duke, said the request to change the name was being reviewed according to those procedures.

In 2014, Duke renamed a dorm that had honored a former North Carolina governor who was a white supremacist. But this is the first request since the university created a framework for considering names and symbols, said Don Taylor, a professor of public policy and chair of the Academic Council at Duke. Taylor said the proposal the history faculty wrote was well-written and persuasive. But it seems to him a more complicated case because the former governor had no tie to Duke, whereas Carr gave crucial help to the school.

“We need to reckon with the dual truths,” Taylor said. “Duke probably wouldn’t exist without Julian Carr’s generosity. And Julian Carr was a virulent white supremacist.”

Carr was an enthusiastic supporter of secession, a Confederate veteran who supported white supremacy politically and financially, said Robin Kirk, faculty co-chair of the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute and co-chair of a local committee looking at Confederate memorials.

But Carr was a complex figure, Kirk said — he also worked with black entrepreneurs. “He was a great philanthropist,” Kirk said. “At the same time, he was an absolutely committed, out-front white supremacist.”

Adam Domby, an assistant professor of history at the College of Charleston who found Carr’s speech at the Silent Sam dedication, agreed that Carr was complex — like all humans, Domby said. Carr donated money to schools for African Americans (money that was needed, Domby argues, because the schools were underfunded through the policies Carr promoted.) And he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

As times change, Martin said, “our understanding of Julian Carr’s role in the early 20th century made it increasingly evident that it was not appropriate for a building at Duke to be named after him.”

Someone such as Gavins, he said, represents the best to which they could aspire.

He also said changing the name of the building would not mean erasing the memory of Carr. “He will remain in the history books,” Martin said. “It’s more a statement about the values of our community.”

It’s not just an abstract idea. This weekend, someone vandalized the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture at Duke, writing a racial slur over the word “Black."

The Chronicle reported that by Saturday afternoon, someone had taped blue paper over the slur. Duke President Vincent Price told the campus he was sorry that his early words for a new semester were marked with “sadness and anger."

“While we can’t undo or unsee this painful assault on our right to live and study in a civil and respectful environment,” he said, “we can and do promise that odious acts like this will be acknowledged and challenged at every opportunity, especially at a time when some seek deliberately to provoke hatred and distrust.”