The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Vanderbilt University removes ‘Confederate’ from inscription at front of dorm

Vanderbilt University will be striking the word “Confederate” from the name of Memorial Hall. (John Russell/Vanderbilt)

Vanderbilt University announced Monday that it will delete the word “Confederate” from the stone pediment at the entrance to a student dormitory known as Memorial Hall, becoming the latest in a wave of schools to alter how their campuses display words and images associated with the southern cause in the Civil War.

To make the change, the private university in Nashville was required under the terms of a 2005 court ruling to pay $1.2 million to the Tennessee division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. That sum represents the present value of a $50,000 donation the organization made in 1933 for the building’s construction and naming rights.

Vanderbilt officials said gifts from anonymous donors will cover the expense of returning the donation.

Nicholas S. Zeppos, chancellor of Vanderbilt, said he and others at the school have long sought to remove the word “Confederate” from the inscription “Confederate Memorial Hall” atop the columned entrance of the 80-bed freshman dormitory. School officials believed that the stone-etched name — honoring rebels who fought in the 19th century for a secessionist movement that supported slavery — was out of step with the image of inclusiveness that Vanderbilt wanted to show the world in the 21st century.

“It’s been a source of controversy, contention and disagreement and various debates over the decades,” Zeppos said. “The question would always come back to, how can we be an inclusive, diverse environment, where everyone feels included, and everyone understands the importance of diversity, with this hall so named?”

Many other schools in recent years have grappled with what to do with the racially divisive Confederate imagery that adorns their campuses. The movement took on fresh urgency following the fatal shootings in June 2015 of African American parishioners at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C., by a white man with links to a racist manifesto.

The University of Texas, for example, moved a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis from a prominent outdoor mall on its Austin campus to an indoor historical exhibit. The University of Mississippi took the state flag down at its campus because the flag prominently includes a Confederate battle emblem. The College of William & Mary took down a plaque honoring rebel soldiers inside its iconic Wren Building.

Yale University continues to debate the name of Calhoun College, a residential unit on campus named for an ardent pro-slavery politician from the antebellum South, John C. Calhoun, who was a U.S. senator from South Carolina and a vice president. In April, Yale’s president, Peter Salovey, said Calhoun’s name would remain on the college as part of an effort to encourage the campus community to confront the history of slavery. But the decision drew significant criticism. On Aug. 1, Salovey announced the creation of a committee to establish principles on renaming. He suggested that the university could reopen the question of the name of Calhoun College after that committee does its work.

Vanderbilt, founded in 1873, has about 12,500 students and is one of the nation’s most prestigious private universities. Zeppos said the university plans to cover up temporarily the word “Confederate” and then, at a later point, install a new pediment that renders the building’s name as Memorial Hall. He said the temporary fix will be in place before freshmen move in on Saturday.

Zeppos, who has been at Vanderbilt since 1987, said the word “confederate” evokes slavery, Jim Crow laws, racial segregation and the Civil War. “It was just not the inclusive symbol that we really want Vanderbilt to have,” he said.

But he acknowledged that the matter remains a subject of dispute on and off campus.

“As long as this has been debated, there has been disagreement about changing the name,” he said. “Some people think it’s wrong to take that [word] off. Some people from certain perspectives think it should be left there as a reminder of our history, and the history of slavery. I’ve heard every possible viewpoint and argument — very passionate views.”