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A Minnesota liberal arts college finally starts to reckon with its racist founder

The humanities building at Macalester College in Minnesota. (Sher Stoneman/Macalester College)

Add Macalester College to the list of institutions of higher education that are attempting to at least partially reckon with their racist history.

Macalester is a liberal arts college in St. Paul, Minn., that was founded in 1874. Its mission, its website says, includes this:

We believe that the benefit of the educational experience at Macalester is the development of individuals who make informed judgments and interpretations of the broader world around them and choose actions or beliefs for which they are willing to be held accountable.

As it turns out, the school is now attempting to hold itself accountable for failing to squarely face the truth about its founder and first president.

Native American students at Macalester have for some time talked about the fact that he was a virulent racist. A 2018 article in the student newspaper, the Mac Weekly, noted this in a profile of Edward Duffield Neill:

Similar to many of his contemporaries, Neill was incredibly racist towards Native American people and culture. He saw his impact on Minnesota to be, in part, to civilize the frontier, which can and should be read as erasure of indigenous markers and the elevation of a white narrative. Neill had a fascination with archaeology and was one of the first excavators of Hopewell culture and Dakota burial mounds in Indian Mounds Park in St. Paul, an incredibly disrespectful disturbance of sacred ground. Of the 18 original mounds in the park only six remain with just one unexcavated. Many of the mounds were removed because they obstructed visibility of the Mississippi River Valley. It was only in 2014 that Indian Mounds Park was put on the National Register of Historic Places by the National Park Service.
It is painful to come to terms with the fact that Macalester was founded by such a person. At Macalester we identify as liberal, multicultural and accepting. It can be difficult to acknowledge that a founder of the college embodied none of those things as we conceive them now. Neill was a highly principled man, a diplomat and an abolitionist, but we must also hold that in conjunction with his blatant racism, disregard for Indigenous culture and elitism. However, to fully appreciate the history and legacy of the college, we need to know our roots, respecting what we now benefit from and condemning what is repugnant.

This year, however, the school decided to do something about it, removing his name from an important building on campus and from a small conference room.

This post, explaining what happened and why it took so long for the school to deal with this, was written by Macalester President Brian Rosenberg, who has been the head of the college for 16 years.

By Brian Rosenberg

Few things capture the absolutist nature of our current moment or the ability of the Internet to fuel outrage more fully than a debate about the renaming of a building on a college campus.

Those who favor removal are certain that keeping the name of a proven racist or anti-Semite on a building, regardless of that person’s accomplishments or of historical context, is tantamount to an uncritical acceptance of racism or anti-Semitism. Those who oppose removal are certain that it constitutes an erasure of history and a concession to the fragility and intolerance of today’s students.

Neither view, in its most extreme form, is tenable. To argue that the name of every imperfect person should be stripped from a campus is to disregard both historical change and our own fallibility. To argue that a name should never be stripped is to take a fixed view of history and to assume that a decision made in 1850 or 1930 must be accepted today as beyond question.

The reality is that such issues are complex and challenging, shaped in each instance by context and best answered by a close examination of particular circumstances. There may be times when the removal of a name is an overreaction, and there may be times when, as John Thelin writes, “deletions and additions of campus figures can be … indicative of healthy renewal.” There is no rule book and there are few absolutes.

Colleges and universities do try. This was the case recently at Macalester College, where a debate arose over whether or not it was appropriate to have a building named in honor of the founder of the college.

The Rev. Edward Duffield Neill (1823-1893) was an important figure in the religious and educational history of Minnesota. He founded two Presbyterian churches and served as the first superintendent of public instruction for the state of Minnesota, the first chancellor of the University of Minnesota and, from 1874 to 1885, the first president of Macalester College. That is, by any standard, an impressive résumé.

Neill was also an American historian — the author of more than a dozen books, chiefly on colonial and Minnesota history — and it is in those works that the story becomes more complex. The language and attitudes expressed toward indigenous people in those writings are racist and dehumanizing in the extreme, even by the admittedly different standards of the time.

In his “Dahkota Land and Dahkota Life,” published in 1859, he refers to the members of that tribe as “skulking savages” whose “general characteristics,” like those of “all Indians,” are “indolence, impurity, and indifference to the future.” He describes Dakota women as “more like infuriated brutes than creatures of reason.” Throughout his life, he argued strongly for forced assimilation, for the appropriation of native lands, and for a set of policies that collectively would amount to genocide.

Even allowing for the fact that Neill’s attitudes were far from unique in 1859, this is awful, particularly in light of what followed: the forced expulsion of most of the Dakota people from Minnesota and, in 1862, the hanging of 38 men in what remains the largest mass execution in U.S. history. Those who argue that others should “get over it” or that “no one is perfect,” I have found, are typically not those whose genocide is being encouraged.

As a Jew, I have elected not to dwell on the fact that anti-Semitism was strong and widespread in Minnesota until relatively recently and that any number of my predecessors in the 19th and first half of the 20th century were probably anti-Semitic. I suspect, however, that I would not respond with equanimity if I discovered that one of those predecessors argued for the extinction of Jews. By what right should I expect such equanimity from our indigenous students?

In October 2013, the Board of Trustees at Macalester voted to change the name of what had been called the “Humanities Building” to Neill Hall. The renaming was intended to remove confusion — the majority of our humanities departments are not and never have been housed in the building — and to honor the founder and first president of the college.

It was neither controversial nor extensively discussed at that time, chiefly because no one in authority — including me — took the time then, or had taken the time during the previous century, to read Neill’s historical work and because little specific evidence of racism was presented to the board.

The version of Neill of which the board was aware, the version that had been celebrated at the college and throughout the state for decades, included the “founder” part but left out the inconvenient part about his intensely racist views of indigenous people. Evidence of those views would not have been hard to find, had we or others in authority bothered to look.

The only reason that Neill’s legacy is now more fully understood is that students at Macalester, led by indigenous students, did the work that should have been done long ago and brought his writings to our attention, including in this 2018 student newspaper article. This is called research. We teach it. Those of us who never took the time to do that research should commend the students for their diligence rather than condemn them for their intolerance. We should also acknowledge that we should have responded to student concerns more promptly and directly.

Should Neill’s name be kept on the building, now that his historical writings and his views have become known? I do not believe that it should, nor, by overwhelming vote in November, did our board. The name has been removed, and a committee is being formed to recommend a new one.

To those who argue that the removal of Neill’s name is an erasure of history, I would respond that it is precisely the opposite: an acknowledgment of history, in all its complexity, that is long overdue.

I empathize with the distress of those at churches and schools, including Macalester, who have been celebrating the legacy of Neill for many decades. In an age short on heroes, it is difficult to see the reputation of a supposedly heroic figure tarnished. But that distress is secondary in importance to an acknowledgment of the truth and to the pain of those who have seen their oppressors uncritically venerated.

This does not mean that every name of every imperfect person should be stripped from every building. College campuses are dotted with the names of industrialists and bankers — Carnegie and Olin, Luce and Mellon — whose histories are mixed but whose gifts funded not only buildings, but professorships and scholarships and research grants. Absent some new and extreme discovery, it would be hypocritical and ungrateful to remove the name and keep the money. We should, however, do a better job of exploring the legacies of the people whose dollars helped shape American higher education, for better and for worse. A name on a building might be acceptable, but it is, by itself, an insufficient reckoning.

Edward Duffield Neill deserves credit and recognition for helping to found Macalester College and for pioneering the education of (some) people in Minnesota. He deserves condemnation for his published views of the indigenous people who suffered so profoundly, and continue to suffer, in the state. We have comfortably been giving him credit for a century and a half. It seems a bit much to object now to a less comfortable balancing of the historical scales.