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Old South, New South Clash on Vanderbilt’s Campus

Old South, New South Clash on Vanderbilt’s Campus
Decision to change building’s name lands university in legal battle
By David Hefner


Vanderbilt University is ensnarled in a legal battle over its decision to remove the word “Confederate” from a campus building that was partially built by descendants of the Confederate Army.

Vanderbilt Chancellor Gordon Gee decided in September to rename Confederate Memorial Hall, a dormitory originally built in 1935 for the George Peabody School for Teachers with financing from the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC).

The decision to remove the name came after years of requests by university faculty, staff and students. Many said the dormitory’s name was offensive and gave the impression that Vanderbilt supported the Confederate Army, which during the Civil War supported states’ rights to continue slavery.

UDC leaders immediately condemned the university’s decision, vowing to sue. The pro-Confederate organization accused the Vanderbilt administration of bowing to the dictates of political correctness. In November, in Davidson County Chancery Court, the Tennessee division of the UDC sued the university in an attempt to stop it from renaming Confederate Memorial Hall.

“We’re very upset,” Carolyn Kent, president of the Tennessee division, told The Tennessean, Nashville’s local newspaper. “There’s a movement at Vanderbilt to really focus on diversity and multiculturalism. But in that mix, there seems to be no room for anyone of Confederate descent.”

Though the judge has not ruled on the injunction yet, Vanderbilt attorneys have already lost two motions. In January, Chancery Court Judge Irvin H. Kilcrease Jr. rejected Vanderbilt’s motion to keep confidential the names of employees or trustees who requested the name change. Vanderbilt has said that several employees — including Chancellor Gee — have received threatening phone calls and e-mail messages from UDC sympathizers. One caller threatened to “cut out” the heart of Gee, Vanderbilt officials said in court documents.

Kilcrease called the motion “overly broad,” but required UDC attorneys to get permission from him before disclosing the names of Vanderbilt personnel who helped get the name removed.

Additionally, Vanderbilt had requested that UDC attorneys not be able to depose two Vanderbilt faculty members, math professor Dr. Jonathan Farley and retired Vanderbilt historian Dr. Paul Conkin. Again, the judge denied the motion. Farley wrote a critical op-ed piece about the UDC that was printed in The Tennessean, and Conkin wrote a history of Vanderbilt.

“We are vigorously contesting the suit on several grounds, including the fact that there is no valid contract between the UDC and Peabody College regarding the name of the building,” says Michael Schoenfeld, Vanderbilt’s vice chancellor of public affairs.

“In addition, we believe that the principles of academic freedom regarding the name of a building on our campus are urgent and compelling.”

Vanderbilt’s ongoing lawsuit is perhaps the latest sign of an ever-increasing clash between the ideals of the New South and the historical legacy of the Old South. Schoenfeld says the university wants to distance itself from values and symbols that some may associate with the South’s racist past.

“The change is intended to help create a more positive, inclusive environment at Vanderbilt,” Schoenfeld says. “And to ensure that our facilities and symbols do not inadvertently reflect values that are inconsistent with the university’s mission.”

In 1935, the UDC gave $50,000 to the George Peabody School for Teachers to have the $150,000 dormitory constructed. The teachers’ school was located across the street from Vanderbilt. The financial deal included naming the dormitory after the confederate group and gave free rent to female students who could prove they were descendants of Confederate soldiers.

In 1979, Vanderbilt acquired Peabody, renaming it Peabody College at Vanderbilt University. The university assumed some agreements and debts previously held by Peabody, including some related to the construction of Confederate Memorial Hall. Today, Peabody College is one of the nation’s top education schools.

Ironically, both Vanderbilt and the UDC trace their roots to Nashville and the Civil War. Founded in 1873 by the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, the architects of Vanderbilt wanted the private university — fashioned after Harvard, Yale and Princeton — to help close the huge rift that separated the North and South after the war. It wouldn’t be easy. Many people and organizations, including those associated with Vanderbilt, had in some way helped to sustain slavery, one of the contested issues for which the Civil War was fought.

The Methodist church itself split in 1844 over the issue of slave ownership, according to Vanderbilt historian Conkin in his book Gone with the Ivy: A Biography of Vanderbilt University. And one Vanderbilt founder was an officer for the Confederate Army.

Nonetheless, Schoenfeld says, Vanderbilt’s political purpose has been clear from the start.

“We also recognize our unique history as an institution that was created to heal the rift between the North and the South, at a time when the wounds of war were still fresh,” he says. “One way to do that is to foster the best and most rigorous scholarship about that time in our nation’s past.”

The UDC, with a national membership of 25,000, is an outgrowth of two 1890 organizations, the Daughters of the Confederacy in Missouri and the Ladies’ Auxiliary of the Confederate Soldiers Home in Tennessee. The National Association of the Daughters of the Confederacy was formed in Nashville in 1894. At the group’s second meeting in 1895, it decided to rename the organization the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

According to its Web site, the UDC has seven objectives: to honor the memory of Confederate soldiers who were killed; to protect, preserve and mark places made historic by Confederate valor; to collect “truthful history” of the Civil War, which they refer to as the War Between the States; to record the role Southern women played during the war; to fulfill benevolent duties toward Confederate survivors and descendants; to help descendants of “worthy Confederates” get an education; and to cherish friendships within the organization.

For now, Vanderbilt officials are simply calling the dormitory Memorial Hall, in honor of all soldiers who have lost their lives in America’s armed forces. As of mid- February, however, the “Confederate” name had not been removed from an online map on Vanderbilt’s Web site.

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