Letter to the Editor: Douglas Hall needs to be renamed

This letter was submitted by the faculty of the Eastern History Department.

Our department began talking about the renewed call to rename Douglas Hall last summer, against the backdrop of the protests over George Floyd’s murder and renewed calls to dismantle white supremacy and stand for racial justice.

We write today to state our unequivocal support for renaming Douglas Hall. In the debate at Charleston in 1858, both Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas voiced racist beliefs about African Americans, and Douglas’ unapologetic racism in the debates and beyond is blatantly antithetical to EIU’s professed values.

Likewise, despite its historical significance in contributing to the undermining of slavery, the tone of the Charleston debate reflected deep-seated racism on both sides. Many scholars add nuance to Lincoln’s statements, describing him as playing politics in southern Illinois or even stealthily making his way towards a more radical antislavery stance.

Few are able to dismiss or contextualize Douglas’s racism so easily. As such, it seems an inappropriate name for a building serving as home for a diverse group of young scholars pursuing a university education at a public institution.

Removing a name from a building does not remove the Lincoln-Douglas debates (or, as they were known at the time, the Douglas-Lincoln debates) from history, nor from our understanding of the role they played in the past.

Commemoration is an act committed in the present, not the past. The debates are part of our political heritage, important to many because of the role they played in launching Lincoln to national renown and because in them, we can watch Lincoln grapple and perhaps shift.

In the debate that followed the one in Charleston, Lincoln famously declared that Douglas was “blowing out the moral lights around us” in his willingness to uphold slavery. The debates are commemorated not just in Charleston (at the museum at the fairgrounds and in an exhibit in Stevenson Hall) but in all seven of the debate sites throughout Illinois.

In many debate cities, including our own, statues of Lincoln and Douglas mid-debate bring that image of the Little Giant and Long Abe mid-debate as they were seen by crowds in Illinois in that fall of 1858.

We can still look to the debates, and to Lincoln, to understand the ways in which racist belief existed in many forms in nineteenth-century America, and we can credit Lincoln for recognizing the immorality of slavery and for, once he was Commander in Chief of the Union army, looking to end slavery once and for all. But we no longer look to Lincoln as the “Great Emancipator,” the one who grew and then bestowed freedom to all the enslaved and who is alone responsible for its end: instead, historians of slavery and the Civil War have uncovered the many complex ways in which slavery was destroyed in America, crediting Black Americans and white abolitionists for pushing the cause of emancipation and the actions of the enslaved to demand freedom from the Union army during the war.

These things, as much if not perhaps more than Lincoln’s presidential decrees and inner evolution, brought the end to slavery in America – though not the racist beliefs which had undergirded it, in the North as well as the South, beliefs very much on display in the debate at Charleston in 1858. This, too, is part of the legacy of the debates: the marker for the Charleston debate describes how anti-Black statements made here “qualified [Lincoln’s] legacy as the Great Emancipator.”

Some have said we cannot hold Stephen Douglas to the standards of today, and that to rename a building is to do so. This position confuses commemoration and preservation with the historical record and history itself.

But even more importantly, to say that people should be judged by their times, not ours, ignores the four million enslaved people who, when Douglas spoke in Charleston in 1858, knew well enough that slavery was horrific. It ignores the actions of many free Black and white abolitionists (including Illinois brothers Elijah and Owen Lovejoy) who recognized its immorality and fought to end the practice.

It ignores the misgivings of our Founders, who, even while they enslaved people, labeled the institution of slavery sinful. And it even ignores the way that people (including Lincoln) can grow, helping to bend the moral arc of the universe more towards justice.

 

The Eastern History Department can be reached at [email protected]