The measure had widespread support not only on the Maryland campus in College Park but statewide as well. Maryland president Wallace D. Loh supported the change as did university system chancellor Robert L. Caret. Both U.S. senators Ben Cardin (D) and Barbara Mikulski (D) also supported the name change along with U.S. House members Steny Hoyer (D) and Chris Van Hollen (D).
“For some African-Americans and other people of color, the name ‘Byrd stadium’ conveys a racial message hidden in plain sight,” Loh wrote in a letter to the board, noting that the 2015 freshman class represented the most diverse in the school’s history, with 25 percent being black and Hispanic. “Yet, we know that these dramatic changes have not eliminated racial tensions. Today’s progress cannot fully undo memories of yesterday’s wrongs.”
Colin Byrd, a Maryland senior from Prince George’s County who is studying sociology, spoke to board members in support of renaming the facility and noted that a majority of the members of the football team that plays in the stadium are black.
Byrd, 23, said that those players “should not have to do so within the symbolic shadows of someone who would have hated you.”
Junior Azubuike Ukandu, 21, a Maryland defensive lineman, said he learned that he was playing football in a stadium named for a segregationist while writing a research paper.
“At first I was shocked,” said Ukandu, a community health major from Towson, Md. He said that Friday’s move to change the name made him proud to be a Terrapin. “It showed me that they will not tolerate racism on campus.”
The latest push to rename the stadium began in March, when Colin Byrd collected signatures for a petition calling on Loh to examine the name change. Byrd said that he was pleased with the outcome of the board vote but said that he wanted a new name to acknowledge the efforts of black athletes such as Darryl Hill, the school’s first black football player, who helped lead the university to prominence on the national stage.
“I think today is a watershed moment for the University of Maryland,” said Byrd, who is black and is not related to the former university president. “I think we’re moving towards making sure we don’t honor individuals who conflict with our current commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion.”
The matter arose after the university’s student government last spring called on Loh to examine the history behind Byrd’s leadership at the school from 1935 to 1954. As racial unrest unfolded in nearby Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, a racist, sexist email sent by a white fraternity member exacerbated tensions on campus.
Patrick Ronk, president of the Maryland student government association, told board members that student activism was at the heart of the name change movement. Ronk said that when students gathered to talk about racial tensions on campus, the stadium came up almost immediately.
“They said, ‘How do we feel welcome at the university when one of the most prominent buildings on campus is named after a segregationist?'” Ronk said. “That’s a common refrain.”
A university workgroup tasked with investigating the stadium’s name described Byrd’s concerted segregationist efforts to keep black students and faculty from the College Park campus through a “separate but equal” education plan.
Byrd, a 1908 graduate of Maryland, was a captain of the football team and All-American who served as a coach before rising in the university leadership to the presidency. Under Byrd’s stewardship, the university grew from 3,400 students to 16,000. He oversaw the construction of more than 60 buildings on campus while the budget increased from $3 million annually to $20 million.
Yet Byrd also proposed that the college become a private institution in order to avoid federal laws calling for the university to integrate. He also was quoted as saying that the state should prevent black students from enrolling at the flagship campus, stating that “we’re going to have to accept negroes at College Park, where our girls are.”
Although the first black students were admitted to Maryland during Byrd’s tenure, he did not support their enrollment.
Later, as a candidate for governor in 1954, Byrd campaigned on a “separate but equal” platform and denounced efforts by the federal government to pass anti-lynching laws. Byrd was soundly beaten at the polls.
The school’s stadium was first named after Byrd in 1923. Later as president he led the development of a new stadium on campus. In January 1950, the board of regents voted to name the new facility in Byrd’s honor, a motion that the president actually opposed.
According to minutes from the meeting, Byrd told the board that “he did not wish it to seem that he had been trying to build a monument to himself.”
In board discussions Friday, regents noted that Byrd’s views represented commonly held opinions of his era. Moreover, some regents questioned if other buildings or programs honoring Marylanders would be reconsidered in the near future; the school still presents an award named after Byrd at graduation, for example. The workgroup also noted in its report that Francis Scott Key was a prominent defender of slavery and proponent of sending free blacks and slaves back to Africa.
Regent Robert Rauch, a 1973 Maryland graduate, said that he opposed the name change proposal because he believes Byrd deserves to be recognized as a historical figure who had influence on the school.
“My point is that fundamentally I don’t support the idea of changing names or moving monuments for symbolic reasons,” Rauch said. “I am 100 percent supportive of the expectation and the hopes and the needs of improving diversity on the campus, but I’m not sure that I totally believe that the effort to change the name of the stadium is the answer.”
Rauch said that he received 150 emails from Marylanders expressing concern about the name change.
“One of my concerns is that solving division with in the active campus community may be creating division from a broader group,” Rauch said. “They still have the passion for the heritage and history of the Byrd name.”
Rauch said that while he voted against the measure, he supports the board’s decision. The board majority sided with the idea that the name was sending the wrong message to current students, something that outweighed honoring Byrd on the school’s “front porch.”
Kumea Shorter-Gooden, chief diversity officer at Maryland, who served on the name-change work group, told board members that “residuals of our segregationist, Jim Crow racist history linger.”
Shorter-Gooden continued that “changing the name will be deeply meaningful to many. Moreover, in a nation that is roiling with respect to issue of race, the University of Maryland, College Park, and the university system of Maryland, can demonstrate through this action our capacity to lead in higher education in this difficult and contested arena.”