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Racial reckoning draws in namesakes of Virginia Tech's past

Racial reckoning draws in namesakes of Virginia Tech's past

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Since Virginia Tech announced in early June that it would once again reexamine the name of a dorm mired in Ku Klux Klan controversy, focus has turned to other campus facilities named for men with ties to the Confederacy and white supremacy.

Colleges nationwide are rethinking place names as they reckon with renewed momentum for racial justice sparked by the May 25 death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis.

James Madison University in Harrisonburg announced last month that it would rename three buildings named after men who fought for the Confederacy.

Last week, Princeton University said it would remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from a college and public policy school because of Wilson’s racist policies, which included resegregating the federal civil service.

At Tech, at least seven campus facilities honor men who at one time or another owned slaves, served in the Confederate military or espoused virulent white supremacist views.

Last month, Tech President Tim Sands said the Council on Virginia Tech History would review the issue of Lee Hall and make a recommendation to the Commemorative Tributes Committee.

Named after Claudius Lee, an 1896 alumnus and electrical engineering professor, the dorm has seen periodic calls to be renamed ever since students in the 1990s discovered a yearbook claiming Lee as a campus KKK leader. A university review at the time concluded the reference may have been a 19th century prank.

“While there have been earlier reviews of the naming of Lee Hall, I am asking that we review this issue again,” Sands said.

But the university hasn’t specifically asked the council to examine the names of other buildings. A Tech spokesman said any review of additional names would go through the same process.

“The problem goes beyond Lee Hall,” said Biko Agozino, a professor of sociology and Africana studies.

Agozino mentioned the restaurant Preston’s in the Inn at Virginia Tech, which is named for Col. William Ballard Preston, who owned about 50 people at the Smithfield Plantation and served briefly in the Confederate Senate. Preston, who served as secretary of the Navy under President Zachary Taylor, lent his name to the Preston and Olin Institute, which would later become Virginia Tech.

Tech’s Kentland Farm is named for James Randal Kent, who also helped found the institute, and who owned hundreds of slaves.

“That is still named after the family that enslaved those people of African descent,” Agozino said.

Jimmy Kaindu, a rising senior whose online petition to rename Lee Hall has garnered about 12,000 signatures, later learned about the namesake of Barringer Hall, another dorm.

“Wow, we thought Lee was bad, but there’s somebody worse,” Kaindu recalled.

Paul Barringer, who served as Tech’s president from 1907 to 1913, wrote a 1900 speech called “The American Negro: His Past and Future,” in which he argued that “savage” Black Americans had been improved by slavery.

He advocated for political disenfranchisement and the prohibition of Black people from becoming teachers or pursuing higher education.

“The young negro of the South, except where descended from parents of exceptional character and worth, is reverting through hereditary forces to savagery,” Barringer wrote. “Fifty centuries of savagery in the blood cannot be held down by two centuries of forced good behavior if the controlling influences which held down his savagery are withdrawn as they have been in this case.”

Last year, the University of Virginia, where Barringer served as chairman of the faculty from 1896 to 1903, removed his name from the wing of a medical hospital.

In its announcement of the renaming, the university said, “Many of Barringer’s research conclusions, including his support for eugenics, have been discredited.”

Barringer’s establishment of eugenics science at UVa would go on to influence the creators of the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment between the 1930s and 1970s in which experimenters never told hundreds of Black men about their disease or offered treatment.

“Paul Barringer is the one president of the institution whose picture I refused to include in my 1997 book” on the history of Virginia Tech, said Peter Wallenstein, a history professor who sits on the Council on Virginia Tech History.

Barringer was a “very keen white supremacist of the early 20th century,” Wallenstein said in an interview last month.

“Now, that necessarily didn’t distinguish him from his colleagues, but that certainly fit the description.”

During the Civil War, a few founding fathers of Tech whose names grace buildings served in the Confederacy.

Vawter Hall, a dorm constructed in the 1960s, is named for Charles Erastus Vawter Sr., a member of the board of visitors from 1886 until 1900. In his 20s, Vawter served in the Stonewall Brigade of the Confederate army and obtained the rank of captain.

Lane Hall, one of the oldest buildings on campus, is named for Gen. James Lane, the first commandant of cadets, who attained the rank of brigadier general in the Confederate army.

Lane Stadium, on the other hand, is named for Edward Hudson Lane, an alumnus who was instrumental in developing the university’s athletics programs.

The academic building McBryde Hall is named for John McLaren McBryde, president from 1891 to 1907. Sometimes known as the “Father of VPI,” McBryde oversaw the creation of much of Tech’s modern traditions — including the school colors, university motto, Hokie mascot, yearbook and newspaper, football program and graduate program. In 1861, McBryde left college to join a Confederate volunteer company.

“Without McBryde, there is no Virginia Tech,” Wallenstein said. It is a more complicated question of “how to square an understanding of him as an enthusiastic Confederate as a 20-something, and as an extraordinary institution builder a generation ... later,” Wallenstein said, noting, “both statements are true.”

“Claudius Lee has no such claim,” he added. “One could well say his naming rights have expired.”

At the University of Oklahoma, officials were inspired by a Tech committee report to place signs outside campus buildings that taught the history of their original names, why it made sense at the time and why its renaming made sense.

“That’s the model I have in mind that needs to be created for the Virginia Tech campus,” Wallenstein said.

Last year, the university named a building for the Fraction family, who were enslaved by the Prestons on that land. It is the second building on campus named for African Americans, after Peddrew-Yates Hall, named after the university’s first Black student and first Black graduate, which was renamed in 2003.

A Tech spokesman noted that several buildings remain nameless and that there could be opportunities for the university to consider new names to reflect its broader history.

“New names for the buildings could include the names of the American Indian Native tribes,” whose land was stolen “that made way for the university,” Agozino said. “They could also include the names of famous civil rights leaders who fought to make America better, rather than fought to continue the enslavement of fellow Americans.”

Noting the continued disproportionate representation of African Americans among students and faculty at Tech, Agozino said the struggle for racial justice could not stop just at names.

“The university has to embrace diversity more positively as something good for the university,” he said. “It’s not going to end with the change of names.”

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