Eastern’s Naming Committee voted unanimously to recommend the university rename Douglas Hall Wednesday morning, ending the process that has been underway since then Sept. 11, 2020 Board of Trustees meeting.
The committee was brought together by University President David Glassman to discuss the idea of renaming following a summer that heavily focused on combatting direct and systematic racism.
“This is an issue that has been discussed and evaluated and debated for about a decade now and we’ve had two major university reviews of a potential name change and then during course of the summer there obviously has been a great deal of additional awareness and the whole nation is grappling with the issues of systematic racism and differential social justice and discrimination based on one’s race and while the president’s council was working all summer primarily on COVID-19 return to campus plans, this issue kept coming up for us in our discussions and we felt the time is now to really evaluate it again under the new light, under the current awareness’s that are taking place across our nation,” Glassman said while restaffing the committee.
Now, the committee’s recommendation will go back to Glassman and the trustees.
When the idea to bring the committee together was introduced, some trustees expressed support for a name change.
Board member Audrey Edwards said changing the name may be a good way to show consideration to Black students and community members.
“What seemed less important at that time is certainly at the forefront of people’s minds now, Edwards said during the meeting. “I strongly believe that renaming the hall would be an expression of respect for the Black community that is very much needed at this point.”
Philip Thompson, member pro tem of the board, said the issue has been brought up since he attended Eastern.
“This is something that when I was a student, students on campus protested about, Thompson said during the meeting. “There’s not many opportunities we have to correct things that happened hundreds of years ago, so I think this is a great way for EIU to say we respect people of color, not just African American students but all people of color, and that we respect that the world is changing and we want to be on board with that.”
That spirit of support continued in most forums hosted by the committee on the potential renaming, from students to faculty and staff to community members. The majority expressed that the name should be changed, with some arguing in favor of retaining the name.
Jason Boomgarden, a sophomore English education major, spoke during the student forum. He read passages aloud to highlight the fact that both men involved in the debate had racist, pro-slavery positions at that time of the debate in Charleston.
“The reason we’ve kept Douglas Hall the way it’s named has always been to honor the speeches that were made here, to honor the historic event,” Boomgarden said. “The content of that historical event doesn’t seem worth honoring in any way. It’s a debate in which both people hurled racism at each other at the expense of people of color in Illinois and across America and across the world. I think that it’s best that we change the name to honor someone worth honoring.”
Brian Moushon, an Eastern alum now living in Georgia, shared during the community forum that he was not in favor of a name change but said multiple times he was “on the fence” about the matter.
He shared he was concerned that the renaming could lead to other places on campus being renamed or removed, like portraits in the library.
Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz, associate professor of history, said during the all-faculty forum that she did not believe the building was needed for commemorating the debates.
“I think that the debates are commemorated here. They’re commemorated at the fairgrounds, we have those statues of Lincoln and Douglas debating that appear in the other debate cities as well with a museum, with a plaque that really does a great job of contextualizing and dealing honestly with them,” . “So I don’t think that they also need to be commemorated on campus.”
Members of the committee cited the majority opinion as a reason to recommend a name change.
Carlos Amaya said the only place in which he had seen many people wishing to retain the name were members of the surrounding community.
“Everybody else, the students, the faculty, employees, is in favor of renaming the building,” Amaya said.
Amaya said the values of today are not the same as the values of those when the building was originally named. He added that he believed the committee should listen to the students on the matter because the students are why the university exists.
Mona Davenport agreed that student voices should have had a large part to play in the committee’s final decision.
“(Student) were all animated about ‘let’s make a difference, make a change and do what’s right,’” Davenport said.
She said she felt “adamant about standing for our students because those are the ones who we are educating and those are the ones who we have to set the example for.”
Another highly discussed topic of the committee was commemoration versus history.
Don Holly said the two should not be viewed as the same thing.
“History is not commemoration. History is critical and scholarship, commemoration is marketing. Commemoration is a poor way to do or teach history. If you really want to honor history here, you honor the debate. It’s absolutely clear to me that the people who named these buildings intended to honor the debate. There were two buildings, they looked exactly the same and they were going up at the exact the same time (if there was only one building to name) they certainly would not have named it for Douglas, but unfortunately, as a standalone building it does appear to honor Douglas,” Holly said. “This is a problem that no number of informative plaques will be able to correct and it’s a problem because Douglas was a racist and a slave owner and a good percentage of our student body of color will be compelled to live in a building that bears his name.”
Holly added that he did not believe Douglas was worthy of the commemoration he receives with the hall’s name.
“We have heard that Douglas was merely a populist who wanted to simply give people the choice if they wanted slavery or not but I don’t understand how you can give some people the freedom to chose if other people have theirs. The way that Douglas got to there logically was of course by arguing that Black people weren’t entirely people; I don’t think this is a position to commemorate. Some have said if you honor this debate, you honor both sides of it, I disagree,” Holly said. “You can have a commemorative Battle of the Bulge Hall and it wouldn’t imply that the Nazis had a point. Charleston, indeed, was a kind of battleground, maybe one of the most important in our nation’s history.”
Naming Committee Chair Angie Campbell said spoke with many people who said they did not want to respond to the survey out a fear of judgement or retaliation. She added the committee and Glassman should consider those concerns; however, the survey did not require individuals to identify themselves.
Some committee members expressed they felt those people should have voiced their opinions when they had the chance.
“I don’t think we should go through the process of trying to imagine survey responses that were never submitted. You had the opportunity to submit it and if you didn’t, you didn’t,” Holly said. “We can’t imagine all of the people who decided not to do it for this or that reason.”
Some ideas brought forward during the meeting included naming the building in a way that is more clearly commemorating the debate, creating a rubric or bringing forward the suggestion that buildings are not named after people to avoid future controversy and constant name changes.
Davenport stated the committee may have to change names from time to time, but that it was okay because that is what the committee is there for.
Holly echoed that idea, saying the university should not name things with the intention of it being the same name forever.
Claudia Janssen-Danyi said the university should not shy away from naming a building after someone out of fear of controversy.
“That would mean that on this campus we could never name a building after Frederick Douglass, we could never name a building after Harriet Tubman,” Janssen-Danyi said. “…One thing that underlays this process, processes that are going on throughout the country is this question: ‘how do we commemorate a history that involves gross crimes against humanity and groups of people?’ One way to do that is to honor the victims of those crimes against humanity and those who worked to end it.”
This is the third time the committee has addressed the possibility of renaming the residence hall that has been the subject of controversy and debate for over a decade. Both times the committee addressed potentially renaming the hall, they ultimately recommended to retain the name.
Originally, the hall was named along with Lincoln Hall in an attempt to recognize the Lincoln-Douglas debate that took place in Charleston in 1858, however, it began coming into question as many felt the name commemorated the men individually and were concerned about Douglas stood for in his life, specifically his support for slavery.
One such person was former Eastern professor Chris Hanlon, who was the first to bring the issue to the university. Hanlon has advocated for a name change for over a decade and was one of the individuals who wrote Glassman to request a name change.
After hearing of the current Naming Committee’s decision, Hanlon said the recommendation reflects what he already believed about Eastern.
“It’s a really important decision because it reflects not only the truth about Douglas but the truth about Eastern,” Hanlon said. “EIU is not some small-minded, backward, racist backwater, and it occupies a wider world than Coles County. The people who have spoken out over the past months, especially the students, make that clear.”
Corryn Brock can be reached at 581-2812 or at [email protected]