A University of Alabama junior is asking that a building on campus be renamed to honor an alumna, the author Harper Lee, rather than a former senator who was a Confederate general and a leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

Her petition, which had nearly 2,000 digital signatures within days of being posted online after Lee’s death, joins a growing number of calls at universities across the country to reconsider traditions, names and symbols of the past. It’s part of a national debate over whether things such as building names and statues should be changed if they offend people today, or if doing so would amount to erasing history.

It also comes as activists are demanding change, including renaming other buildings, at the school where Gov. George Wallace made a famous speech barring black students from enrolling at the state flagship university nine years after the U.S. Supreme Court had acted to end segregation in education.

It was a defining moment in American history, and many students and others don’t want it to define the institution.

Harper Lee, who died Friday, wrote one of American literature’s most beloved novels, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” about a white lawyer who defends a black man wrongly accused of rape. It was published in 1961, as the Civil Rights movement was growing, two years before Wallace’s speech.

Washington Post book critic Ron Charles explains how Harper Lee will be remembered. (McKenna Ewen/The Washington Post)

Morgan Hall, which houses the English department on the Tuscaloosa campus, is named for John Tyler Morgan. He was a six-term U.S. senator, a Confederate general and a “grand dragon” of the Ku Klux Klan, said Lisa Lindquist Dorr, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and an associate professor of history at Alabama. Morgan was an ardent proponent of segregation and worked to revoke the right of black people to vote.

The university was almost entirely burned down by Union troops near the end of the Civil War, Dorr said — another defining event — and Morgan was instrumental in getting federal funds to rebuild the institution.

Jessica Hauger, a history major from Georgia, had been concerned about the name of the building for a while. After Lee’s death, she created an online petition, which reads in part:

Currently, the University of Alabama’s Department of English is housed in Morgan Hall, named after John Tyler Morgan. Morgan was a general in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, and post-war, a six-term senator from the state of Alabama. He was also a Grand Dragon in the Ku Klux Klan, and used his legislative power to promote racist policies and practices. He advocated sending African-Americans out of the United States and into Hawaii, the Philippines, or Cuba, all the while promoting racial segregation domestically as well. He worked to curtail the voting rights of African-Americans, hoping to repeal the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution.
Upon the death of Harper Lee, who attended the University of Alabama from 1945-1949, the University has an amazing chance to show our support for racial equality, as well as to honor the legacy generally of a woman who promoted kindness and empathy for all. Lee was doubtless the University’s greatest contribution to literature, and it would be more than fitting for our English building to bear her name, which reflects so much more accurately the values of the University of Alabama, than that of white supremacist John Tyler Morgan.

“I was really surprised,” at the response, Hauger said Monday. “I thought it would get some backlash. But people started signing way more quickly than I imagined they would.”

The student newspaper, the Crimson White, reported that according to a plaque inside the building, Morgan was honored “for his high character and great qualities of head and heart.” In an editorial, they supported the name change and wrote, “John Tyler Morgan is possibly one of the most despicable people whose name is displayed on a university building, and he has some stiff competition for that title. …

“His name is a disgrace to the English department housed inside Morgan Hall. His name is a disgrace to the students, faculty and staff of all colors who have to pass through its doors. His name is a disgrace to a campus striving to re-define itself as an inclusive, national academic power.”

Dorr said it’s important to view historic figures in the context of the times in which they lived, when the values shared by many were different than they are now. But she also offered a reminder that everyone leaves a complicated legacy.

“In the case of John  Tyler Morgan, while his racial beliefs are appalling, I suspect he was remembered on campus for what he did for the University of Alabama … We need to remember both his contribution to the university while we acknowledge that his racial beliefs in no way reflect the values of the university today.  All this is best done if we fully acknowledge and understand a person’s entire legacy, and do so openly as part of our larger on-going discussion about the meaning and purpose of the university today.”

When names are removed, she said, people can “forget the lingering realities of the past.”

Speaking as a historian, not for the university, she said, “I’m in favor of keeping the building names but being very clear about why this person was honored at that time — and how we can come to disassociate ourselves from that legacy.”

A university spokesperson responded to the debate with a written statement:

We are aware of the petition, and we share in the respect and admiration for Ms. Lee. She was one of our own, and she will continue to serve as an inspiration for many generations.
In the past, buildings on our campus have been named for men and women whose contributions to the University and society were viewed through the context of the times they lived. Their history does not define us. Rather, it informs us and moves us forward. Through our strategic planning process that is underway, all points of view are being heard.