Is changing a name erasing history?

The Carr Building controversy raises questions about how the complications of Duke's past square with its present.
Writer: 
February 8, 2019

ON A SWELTERING AFTERNOON in September, in front of the Carr Building on East Campus, a young black woman addressed a gathering of a couple hundred members of the Duke and Durham communities. She stood in front of a building named for Julian Carr. She stood on ground Carr donated to the university.

She was not there to praise Julian Carr. Or, for that matter, Duke.

“As a black African woman,” senior Christine Kinyua said, “as an immigrant, I don’t see myself in this institution.” Kinyua was talking about the physical environment Duke has built as it has created itself. Founded by white men and segregated until the early 1960s, Duke has honored only them with statues, and named buildings almost only after them.

Even in that context, Carr was not just another rich man who donated money to a fledgling college. He also, as recent documents dug up by historians have shown, supported the violent movement to suppress black voters and black progress around the turn of the twentieth century, publicly supported the dishonest Lost Cause mythology, proudly and publicly reflected upon his beating of a black woman. With Carr’s name prominently celebrated, Kinyua said she sees Duke as a place seemingly frozen in “a time stuck with the prevalence of wealth and white supremacy, a time that we all acknowledge as wrong and problematic.” To Kinyua, by retaining Carr’s name on a building, Duke said far more than that it appreciated his financial support in its early days. In front of Carr, she voiced one of the demonstration’s central demands: “To move forward to actually [remove] the Carr name in front of this building and [replace it with] something that is representative of our entire community.”

Names, she was saying, have meaning; statues have meaning. They tell us who we are, what we believe, what we raise up.

KINYUA WAS STRAIGHTFORWARDLY asking: Does Duke want to honor a man who spent most of his life working against, even attacking, black people? Can you ask a black student to walk through a door beneath such a name? Would you ask a Jewish student to sign up for classes in the Himmler Building, a Native American student to meet you in the Andrew Jackson Center?

Duke has found itself addressing these kinds of questions at a time when digitization eases access to historical documents, bringing forgotten realities into the light and to wider view. As many citizens ask the nation—and especially the South—to confront its undeniably racist past, members of the Duke community are asking Duke to question the names on its monuments, the statues it has chosen to erect. A year-and-a-half ago, a woman was killed in Charlottesville by a protester defending a statue of Robert E. Lee. The same issue—highlighting a speech by the very same Julian Carr—boiled over at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill when, after years of peaceful protest failed to cause change, demonstrators in August tore down the Confederate memorial statue of Silent Sam.

Changing a historic name is a complex topic, perhaps ironically so given that the Carr Building houses Duke’s history department, the very people most committed to examining the complexities of the past and how they relate to the present. Is changing a name erasing history? Who decides, and how? To what degree should long-standing expressions of memorial and honor, like buildings bearing people’s names, like statues, express the current values of the university? Do you apply today’s values to all historical figures? Is anything permanent? How far can re-evaluation go?

Kinyua’s movement didn’t advocate forgetting Carr. When she spoke, Kinyua quoted Pauli Murray, who was raised in Durham and became a noted civil rights activist in the mid-twentieth century: “True emancipation,” Murray said, “lies in the acceptance of the whole past, in deriving strength from all my roots, in facing up to the degradation as well as the dignity of my ancestors.” But acceptance of the whole past doesn’t mean honoring it. Kinyua still demanded the removal of Carr’s name.

She would eventually get her wish—in early December the committee examining the question recommended removal, and the board of trustees took the action. Carr is now the Classroom Building, the original name of the building, though maybe not for long.

The questions raised around the issue of naming were hardly new. They had moved to a central place in university debate in August 2017 when, shortly after Charlottesville, a vandal attacked Duke’s own statue of Robert E. Lee, which stood in the portal of Duke Chapel. A few days later the university whisked the statue away before dawn “to protect Duke Chapel, to ensure the vital safety of students and community members who worship there, and above all to express the deep and abiding values of our university,” according to Duke president Vincent E. Price. Protection and safety need little explication, especially given that almost exactly a year later protesters at UNC pulled down Silent Sam. But the question had been raised, and regardless of the decision on any specific statue or name, it remains.

DUKE IS HARDLY ALONE in facing this challenge to its understanding of its past and how it represents itself. Vanderbilt University spent fourteen years in court and raised $1.2 million so that, in 2016, it could repay the United Daughters of the Confederacy for an original $50,000 donation and thus be free to remove the word “Confederate” from what is now merely Memorial Hall. Yale, after the 2015 murder of nine black women in South Carolina, reconsidered whether a residential college named for slavery defender John C. Calhoun would be perceived as welcoming to all people. A furious worker in 2016 used a broom to attack a common-space stained-glass window of slaves placidly harvesting cotton; another Yale window, previously removed, had been titled “negro with a watermelon.” It took a couple of tries, but Yale in 2017 renamed the college. Berkeley has recently begun rethinking the name Boalt, on its law school, for its namesake’s Chinese-exclusionist views.

Duke itself had addressed some of these questions as recently as 2014, when it returned an East Campus dorm to its previous name, East, removing the name of Governor Charles B. Aycock. Winning the race for North Carolina governor in 1900 after a statewide campaign of repression and violence, Aycock declared in his acceptance speech: “When we say that the negro is unfit to rule we carry it one step further and convey the correct idea when we declare that he is unfit to vote.” He also claimed that white people were “thoroughbreds” who ought not to waste resources educating “a commoner stock.”

In recent years Duke has carved the name of African-American architect Julian Abele into the masonry of his masterwork, Duke Chapel, and renamed the West Campus quad for him (a granite engraving recently replaced the temporary metal plaque in the ground near the bus stop). Regarding Lee, Duke has ultimately decided to leave the niche where Lee once stood empty for the long term. In explaining the decision, Price quoted dean of Duke Chapel Luke Powery, who suggested the empty space might symbolize “a hole that is in the heart of the United States of America, and perhaps in our own human hearts—that hole that is from the sin of racism and hatred of any kind.” Duke also created a procedure by which anyone could propose the reconsideration of any building or memorial on campus.

It didn’t take long—Duke created an ad hoc committee to consider the May 2018 unanimous request by the Department of History that the East Campus building remove the name of Carr and replace it with that of longtime professor Raymond Gavins, Duke’s first African-American professor of history and a beloved mentor throughout the Duke civil rights, human rights, and history communities. The request was supported by Duke Student Government, by a letter signed by 140 history department alumni, and by student protest groups like Duke People’s State of the University, which organized the demonstration at which Kinyua spoke.

Carr’s name entered public debate when historians unearthed his now-notorious speech at the 1913 dedication of Silent Sam on the UNC campus, in which Carr recalls the pride with which he discharged his “pleasing duty” the time he “horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds.” Carr called the 1898 Wilmington coup d’état, in which white mobs destroyed black-owned businesses, seized control of city government, and murdered between dozens and hundreds of black citizens “a grand and glorious event,” and he called the subsequent elections in which black votes were suppressed “the great uprising of Anglo-Saxon manhood.” On black suffrage he was clear: “The whole world admits that it was a mistake,” he said in an 1899 speech, “to have given universal suffrage to the negroes.” According to the history department document, he ran for U.S. Senate under the campaign slogan “The White Man Must Rule or Die.”

On the other hand, Carr is also the man on whose donated land East Campus sits, and whose money, made largely through his branding of “Bull Durham” tobacco, helped sustain Trinity College and move it to Durham. Without Carr, there simply might not be a Duke University. He donated generously to other schools, including UNC and institutions that helped African Americans, such as the Training School for Colored People in Augusta, Georgia. So: Can you honor the generosity while despising the racism? Can you pry Carr the philanthropist apart from Carr the violent white supremacist? And if you can’t, how do you decide whether to remove his name from a building? If you do, are you erasing history, pretending unpleasant things never happened?

The Aycock-East name change was handled without an established procedure. Student government and advocacy groups clamored for the change, then-president Richard H. Brodhead brought the idea to the board of trustees, the trustees approved, and in June 2014 the name changed. A plaque hangs in the lobby now, reminding viewers that “Aycock’s legacy is a complicated one,” and East is now uncontroversially East. Aycock, though, had no special connection to Duke, whereas Carr played an essential role in the university’s history.

So the Carr reconsideration provided the first test of the systems Duke administrators created after the vandalism and removal of the Lee statue. President Price at that time convened the Commission on Memory and History: sixteen students, faculty, trustees, alumni, administrators, and local residents who not only considered what to do about Lee and the chapel but also offered advice on how Duke could, as Price said in an e-mail, “engage in a broader campus conversation about history and inclusion.” The result was a simple, published procedure by which community members could bring up names or memorials for reconsideration.

And the university did more than create a commission. Provost Sally Kornbluth sponsored a symposium in March, “American Universities, Monuments, and the Legacies of Slavery,” that for two days filled the Holsti-Anderson room in Rubenstein Library to overflowing, raising questions about how universities face these uncomfortable legacies. Attendees heard about things like Georgetown University’s apology for its ownership and sale of slaves, and about how Georgetown found its way to its plan to rename buildings, create an institute to study slavery, and raise a monument.

And Robin Kirk, faculty co-chair of the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute, led a Bass Connections team called The Construction of Memory at Duke and in Durham.

“This idea of what we think about the past and how we use it to construct the future is something I’ve been thinking about for a while from a human-rights perspective,” Kirk says, recalling work she’s done in places like Chile and Argentina; she’s also worked with a DukeEngage team in Northern Ireland. She describes herself as “one of the few people who would take students to the chapel and point out who was there” during the years when the Lee statue was mostly overlooked, at least by white members of the community. She says most of the dozen students on the Bass Connections team quickly “were able to see beyond the façade and ask what these symbols stood for,” when considering the statues, names, and other ways Duke creates its physical memory. Kirk notes that in many cases the people commemorated aren’t the entire problem. “It wasn’t actual statues or plaques,” she says. “It was the absence of any other stories or influences.”

Ways to address those other stories appeared in the hundred-page report the team released, “Activating History for Justice at Duke,” which not only noted names to consider changing—it called for the change for Carr— but offered ways of telling those other stories as well. It suggested, for example, a statue of Caroline, a longtime cook for Washington Duke whom he originally purchased as a slave, which would face the statue of James B. Duke from across Abele Quad. It also suggested renaming East again—only this time instead of merely unnaming it, renaming it for a person worthy of honor. As Kirsten Delegard Ph.D. ’99, a Minnesota historian and signatory to the alumni letter, said: “Whose name is on a building, and by extension who we honor, should express the most cherished values of the institution.”

KINYUA, WHO SPOKE at the Carr Building demonstration, grew up in Kenya, where after independence, name changes came in volume—she mentions the power of a secondary school changing from the Prince of Wales School to the Nairobi School—so she brought a specific vision to the Bass Connections project. “When you live in a country that’s a former colony, in some ways the spaces you occupy are somehow home, but foreign,” she says. By the time she came to Duke, “this was like an obsession with me.”

Changing names to help them represent current reality simply makes sense, from her perspective. Carr was named in a time when how black people would experience that name would never have crossed the minds of those doing the naming. That’s not today’s reality, so Carr shouldn’t be today’s name. “Black Lives Matter, feminism, it all boils down to matters of choice. It’s all a matter of not being excluded from the decision-making on a daily basis that affects us.” Carr got his name on a building because he gave money to the school that became Duke. “When did we as a Duke community,” Kinyua asks, “agree that this money equals 500 years of his name being on this space?”

Especially in a university, where undergraduate students are around only four years at a time, permanence may be the wrong concept to apply. “I’m unattached,” Kinyua says, “to the idea of permanence.”

For others permanence holds considerable attraction; for them, reflecting current values by removing a statue or changing the name on a building that has stood for a century reeks of revisionism, inspiring comparisons to pictures of Stalin or Mao in which one-time comrades, subsequently executed, are simply retouched out of the frame. The term “erasure” rises again and again. Sophomore Michael Johnson Jr. attended a town hall-style meeting the history department held when the idea of renaming Carr arose. “Yes, he had some vile views and said some horrendous things, and the ways that he viewed certain people was absolutely horrible,” he says, “but if you look at Duke’s history, Duke wouldn’t be the school it is today without Carr.

“That’s why his name should be on the building: his contributions to Duke.”

Even now that those “horrendous” views have become public?

“Erasing Carr, who was such an instrumental man in the creation of Duke? You really can’t remove him from modern-day Duke.” George Washington was a slave-owner, Johnson notes, but “the Washington Monument in five years isn’t going to be changed to another name.” He recalls the history department panel discussion at which Kinyua described the name changes in Kenya, and he says that’s not an American value. “It’s just not how we do things.” He understands that Carr’s beliefs in his time no longer square with Duke’s values now. But “I would ask, would you affiliate with the school at all? If his views were reflected in the school to begin with? And if the school reflected that individual in its inception, does it reflect them now?”

But, again: That seems to be the exact problem the Procedures for Reconsideration are designed to provide a pathway toward resolving. At the provost’s symposium in the library, President Price described addressing “a past that we never fully reconciled with.” The past is a sticky thing, which means the opportunity for reconciliation will come up again and again. Carr’s own speeches, after all, were almost unnoticed for a century. Then an enterprising grad student at UNC found them as part of Commemorative Landscapes of North Carolina, a project at UNC digitizing everything a team led by professor of history Fitzhugh Brundage could find on the statues and memorials currently at issue. “The goal,” Brundage says, “was to make a resource so that if people wanted to make a conversation they would have a resource to have that conversation.” Which we seem to be doing.

Brundage raises the same question Kirk raised on how the movement to honor Confederate heroes not only honored people we feel differently about now but also crowded out other stories. “They were polemical,” he says of honors from the era of Lost Cause commemoration. “They were didactic when they were erected. They were part of a systematic cultural project, and it’s entirely understandable why they are the subject of controversy now.”

As for the question of erasure or revisionism, Brundage isn’t buying. For one thing, “revision can take many forms. We tear down old historic buildings. Societies revise their landscapes all the time.” Given the number of high schools and roads that changed their names in honor of John F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King Jr., any claim that Americans don’t change commemorative names doesn’t hold water. Airports, sports arenas, downtown skyscrapers, bowl games all change names like partner-hopping celebrities.

But those are mostly financial transactions; in the Duke setting there’s a conscious element of honor, and that’s the question constantly raised. In the demonstration in front of the Carr Building, associate professor of African & African American Studies Wahneema Lubiano said, “Money never forgets where it came from.” And it’s more than just the money, says Trey Walk, a senior history major and member of Duke People’s State of the University, which organized that demonstration and whose manifesto in April 2018 was the first public call for the building’s renaming.

Walk recalls racial hate incidents in the spring of 2018 (a student posted a racist meme; someone wrote racist slurs on another’s door), and “these questions about racial injustice and anti-Blackness and what they meant at Duke especially were just in the air.” When he returned in the fall, racist slurs were written on the sign of the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture, and the Silent Sam protests down the road were heating up. “We were like, we can’t have a conversation about this without talking about how our past and built space shapes some of this,” he says of the protest, which occurred days after the history department submitted its request.

The university’s new policy helped guide protesters’ thinking, Walk says, both for good and ill. “We kept harking back to the decision to bring down the Robert E. Lee statue, and the reasons they were using, rightly so, applied in so many ways to Julian Carr.” On the other hand, he says, “Questions about process are really important.” The current ad hoc approach works, he says, but “are we going to keep piecemeal doing this? A student discovers something, or the faculty discover something, then we have this conversation,” rather than having an overarching survey or assessment. “I think that is what makes me question the commitment to the values that we parade out whenever we make these changes.

“Why does it take Charlottesville happening to make us remove the Robert E. Lee statue? Why does it take the Mary Lou getting defaced and students gathering en masse to protest for us to have a conversation about the Carr Building?” As for questions about whether removing the name would erase history, Walk says that’s how hings stand now: “They know who Carr is,” he says of those who defend the name. “They just erase that part of it. And not only did you erase the violent parts of Carr’s history, you erased all the black people who experienced suffering at his charge.”

Historians are the last people to countenance actual erasure of a figure from the record. If the name of Carr were erased altogether, “it would be like a gaslighting thing,” says Delegard. “It would make this historic white supremacy harder to detect. If we don’t have a record of white supremacy, we don’t have an explanation of disparity today, and it makes people of color feel crazy.” Erasure is not likely, as Walk notes. “The history of Julian Carr is never going to leave this place. Every time someone comes on tour, the guides say his name. He’s not being erased. He’s just not going to be honored anymore.”

DUKE EXECUTIVE vice president Tallman Trask III allows that people commonly get honored with their names on buildings just as Kinyua said they did: by giving a lot of money. And Duke does its due diligence. “When names are proposed, we do look to see whether there is some reason why we ought not to do that,” he says. They rarely find problems. “All the recent cases are things that at the time looked fine, but the standards have changed.” A current example of things looking fine is the new Grainger Hall. It houses the Nicholas School of the Environment and got its name after a $20 million donation from the Grainger Family Descendants Fund, “a long-standing Chicago business family foundation” that the university deeply trusts and easily passed investigation. Now, has some current donor engaged in conduct that if brought to light would change the university’s perspective? Will some of today’s norms prove unacceptable to future generations? “I have no idea,” Trask says.

Trask describes himself as “one of the more conservative people on the standard” of renaming, though he says, “There are reasons one does it—sparingly.” He seems to agree with Kinyua, with Brundage, and with Kirk, that if perceptions change, you address them. “I think you just deal with these things as you get to them.”

History department chair John Martin, too, came slowly to the idea that the Carr name needed to change. “I have evolved on this question,” he says, “so I can see arguments on both sides.” He recognizes that historical figures are ambiguous and resisted changing the name until he read the Silent Sam speech. “After the graduate student discovered the speech, it haunted me,” he says. He finally came to the conclusion that given changes in our culture, Carr’s name now is simply not the same as it was: “Its meaning has changed.” The department proposal doesn’t aim “to eradicate the name of Julian Carr from the record of history,” Martin says. Like the Aycock Building, a renamed Carr Building will have a record of its naming history in its lobby. “We’re trying to say this building should represent the values of the university and of the history department in particular.

“Which are not the values of Julian Carr.”

Not hardly. Ruebe Holmes ’13 works in the history department as assistant to the director of undergraduate studies, and she spoke at the town hall meeting. She hadn’t known about Carr until the department filed its proposal to rename the building, but she ran smack into Duke’s commemorative history at the chapel door. During her freshman year, facing the common struggles of a student away from home for the first time, she says, “I went to the chapel, just, you know, to be there and get some solace. And I happened to walk past the statue of Robert E. Lee. I was trying to get some solace, but there’s a Confederate soldier immortalized here.” That point resonates with Delegard. “How can we ask African Americans to walk through a doorway that has the name of this white supremacist on it?”

In fact, you may not be able to. Hasan Jeffries Ph.D. ’02 concurs. He spent his entire graduate school career on the Duke campus, yet, put off by the statue of Lee, he never entered the chapel, engaging in a quiet, personal act of protest. He learned about Carr only after he graduated but knows what would have happened had he known when considering graduate schools. “All this takes place in the history building,” he says of his feelings when he learned of Carr’s background. People like Carr and Aycock “are the people who were rewriting history—who literally were promoting the false narrative of the Lost Cause,” he says. “If there’s one group of people who understands the implication of this, and what people like Carr were doing in trying to rewrite the history of the United States and of black folk,” it’s historians. His final choice of graduate schools came down to the University of Michigan and Duke. “Had I known that everyone knew that the Carr Building was named for this virulent white supremacist, and Duke had chosen not to change it, I’d have clearly gone to Michigan.”

THE COMMITTEE’S ultimate recommendation to remove the name surprised few. Removing a name shouldn’t be done lightly, but in this case, the report said, it was merited: “The white-supremacist actions that Carr pursued throughout his life, even when considered in light of the time in which they were held, are inconsistent with the fundamental aspirations of this university, and removing the name will be a powerful statement that lifts up our values as a diverse and inclusive institution.” A display in the lobby of the newly named Classroom Building will explain “why the university chose to name the building in his honor in 1930, and why it chose to remove his name nearly ninety years later.”

There is “a distinction,” the committee’s report said, “between history and veneration.”

Virtually everyone agrees that Duke has moved wisely by creating a transparent process for these reconsiderations. UNC’s Brundage, for example, noted that the Lee statue was excised rather abruptly—Duke is a private university, so a couple of conversations, a piece of construction equipment, and Elvis had left the building. “But this is being done through a much more substantive process,” which he admires. Perhaps envies, as well: UNC could not mollify Silent Sam protesters because the North Carolina General Assembly in 2015 passed a law rendering it illegal for any state or local agency to remove an “object of remembrance” from public property. “I think that law was intended to freeze the landscape,” Brundage says. “To create such obstacles that no one using legal means was likely to enjoy much success.” You see how that worked out. Transparent processes look even more attractive in that light.

Nor should they ever stop. “It’s entirely appropriate if every fifty years we would reconsider our landscape,” Brundage says. “Which ones are still doing good cultural work? It would actually be very healthy.” More than healthy.

“This is a challenge for us,” Kirk says. “This is an opportunity.” Delegard agrees. “I see this as an opportunity to bind Duke University, which likes to think of itself as a citizen of the world, but is located in a specific place. I see this as an opportunity for Duke to explore that connection, explain that connection.” Kinyua speaks more strongly on that topic: “We’re no longer an institution in the South for the South,” she says. “We’re an institution in the South for the South, but with a global agenda.” Great, she says, but “Duke needs to stop believing that it is not part of this hostile Southern culture.” Black students “shouldn’t have to go to the Mary Lou to feel welcome.”

As Brundage notes, the process, the struggle, never really ends—the university should always be reconsidering, reassessing. Trey Walk certainly sees it that way. “When people ask when does it end, I don’t think I know the answer to that, but I guess I don’t think that’s the right question. Justice is context-dependent. And it’s not a destination. It’s something that we imagine one way, and people who are yet to come are going to imagine it another way, and they should be able to craft the university in a way that their society imagines justice to be like.”

Jeffries concurs. He was powerfully affected when he learned that Duke had removed the statue of Lee. “This smile came across my face,” he remembers. “It was less a victory for righteousness, more like a little weight that I had carried.” The statue came down, of course, soon after it was vandalized, and he—like virtually everyone who spoke for this piece—did not approve of vandalism. But he loves the changes he’s seen and the process he sees working now.

“That’s being a leading intellectual light in the South,” he says. “And that’s what we need in a state like North Carolina.” He understands the complexity of Carr’s name, that Carr made contributions that cannot be overlooked. But he sees Duke taking the opportunity not only to cast itself also on the right side of history but, given UNC’s struggles with Silent Sam and with Carr, on the right side of historical rivalries. Some university is going to lead the charge into the future in the South.

“If UNC doesn’t want to carry that torch?” he asks. “Then let it be Duke. Let it be Duke.”

Issue_rev: 
  • Scott Huler is the senior writer at Duke Magazine.