Last week, the University of Texas System Board of Regents voted unanimously to change the name of Simkins Residence Hall at the University of Texas at Austin.
In defiance of the 1954 Brown ruling that deemed unconstitutional educational segregation, UT leaders named the newly constructed residence hall after William Stewart Simkins, the deceased longtime UT law professor who previously served as a Confederate colonel and prominent Florida Ku Klux Klan leader.
Simkins was one of the many White men who failed to sustain slavery but succeeded in instituting a neo-slavery of perpetual violent harassment, unimaginable economic exploitation, and social and cultural degradation for African-Americans in the final decades of the 19th century and into the 20th century.
The name change calmed the tumult that erupted in May when former UT law professor Tom Russell published an expose on the life story of Simkins in a journal. UT convened a 21-member advisory group that deliberated for weeks to study and make recommendations on the issue. The hall was renamed Creekside Residence Hall after its adjacent area called Creekside Park.
Without a doubt, UT’s move to erase Simkins is admirable. It was quick. It was efficient. It appears the university did not have be pushed, prodded and pressured to do the right thing by its Black UT community.
Unfortunately, though, the erasure of one avowed racist from a building (that may not even be around much longer) means little if you were to walk onto UT’s campus and see what is still there. If you were to pace over to UT’s South Mall you would see four imposing bronze statues of Southern leaders, including Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States, and Robert E. Lee, the famed Confederate general. You would see statues of men, who, if it was up to them, the vast majority of African-Americans would still be enslaved.
You would also see the anchor of the mall, Littlefield Fountain, which glorifies the Confederacy with an inscription on a stone wall that reads: “To the men and women of the Confederacy who fought with valor and suffered with fortitude that states rights be maintained.” States rights? They need a solid historian to replace it with “slavery be maintained.”
Ironically, this South Mall, with tributes to the Confederacy everywhere, is the sight of the university’s most important annual ritual—commencement.
Still, we must applaud the UT Regents, led by Regent Printice Gary, who is African-American and made the motion, for approving the name change.
“The history behind the name is not in line with today’s UT and its core values,” said Gary to the Austin American-Statesmen. “On a positive note, we took advantage of this opportunity to restate the university’s position regarding the importance of diversity and inclusiveness.”
But I cannot applaud too long, and I cannot agree with Gary and UT officials who are echoing these sentiments. In lieu of the still standing Confederate tributes, the name change does not show the “importance of diversity and inclusiveness.”
That is like a college claiming a commitment to anti-Semitism through removing the name of a Nazi general from a dorm while leaving a statue of Adolf Hitler on campus. It is equivalent to a public university pledging an allegiance to the separation of church and state through altering the name of its St. Mark residence hall, while not touching the prominent statues of Jesus and St. Paul. It’s like telling the world you are committed to non-violence after you discarded a knife, even as you are still armed with an AK-47 and a grenade launcher.
UT vice president for diversity and community engagement Gregory Vincent told the Associated Press that the name removal is a “powerful symbol of the direction of UT-Austin.”
Powerful symbol? It is neither powerful, nor symbolic. And if it means UT is headed toward diversity, then it only gingerly took a baby step with someone holding its hands.
The only removal that could forge this powerful symbol, that could allow UT to take a stride toward diversity, would be the elimination of the Confederate tribute on the campus’s seemingly most sacred area. There is no way a university can spin a commitment to diversity to any thinking person with statues of people who politically and militarily fought against everything diversity lovers love, value and cherish.
Dr. Ibram H. Rogers is an assistant professor of African-American history at SUNY College at Oneonta. Visit his personal blog “The Progressive Corner” at progressivecorner.wordpress.com.