Northern states remove vestiges of racist past
DETROIT – A nearly 80-year-old statue depicting a European settler with a weapon in his hand towering over a Native American that some say celebrates white supremacy has been dismantled by crews in southwestern Michigan’s Kalamazoo.
And at the University of Michigan, regents have voted to strip a former school president’s name from a campus science building because he lent his scientific expertise to groups that were in favor of selective reproduction, also known as eugenics.
Vestiges of racism and intolerance are slowly being moved and removed in Michigan and other northern states. In some cases, the efforts are being led by students and faculty at prestigious universities, community leaders and elected officials taking harder looks at their history and potentially divisive issues while being spurred by more widespread efforts in the South to erase the nation’s slave past.
“I think it’s very much in line with the things we’re seeing happen across the country,” said Josh Hasler, a recent University of Michigan graduate who worked as a student with some faculty members to have Clarence Cook Little’s name scraped off the building on the school’s Ann Arbor campus.
Little was the school’s president from 1925 to 1929. He supported sterilization of what eugenics referred to as the “unfit” and also backed immigration restrictions and laws against the mixing of racial groups, including in marriage. He was scientific director of a tobacco research advisory board in the 1950s and was accused of sowing doubt about smoking and cancer.
The vote to take down Little’s name came in March along with one by regents to remove late science professor Alexander Winchell’s name from a residence hall wing. Winchell wrote a book that is cited by white supremacist groups.
“No one is trying to erase history,” Hasler said. “It goes to show that remembering and commemorating aren’t the same thing.”
Monuments honoring Confederate soldiers have been targeted for removal from courthouses, statehouses, schools and public parks since the racially motivated killings of nine African-American parishioners in 2015 at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, and after last year’s violent protests at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Charlottesville leaders have voted to remove statues of Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Earlier this year, Tulsa Public Schools removed a monument dedicated to Lee and rescinded the school’s name.
Meanwhile, the North Carolina Historical Commission is considering a formal request from late last year by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper to move three monuments from the state’s Capitol grounds to a historic battlefield site.
But such statues and monuments aren’t just being mothballed down South.
Last year, Helena, Montana, removed a memorial to Confederate soldiers that had been in a public park since 1916. And in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, a statue of former Mayor Orville Hubbard – who spent decades trying to keep the city all white – was socked away for more than a year after leaders decided it didn’t belong outside a new City Hall. The Hubbard statue now stands beside a small museum.
Kalamazoo’s Fountain of the Pioneers is expected to be stored away until officials decide on a new home for the monument. Some residents say the piece is racist toward Native Americans. Others argue that it is art and can teach people about history.
Only time will tell if calls to remove monuments will continue to grow, according to Paul Brest, professor emeritus and former law school dean at Stanford University.
“I think it has more to do with a moment in history when there is a lot of consciousness of people’s conduct … a period where people are socially conscious about this behavior in the past,” Brest said. “The Civil War monuments are a particular example of that.
“The things that may seem innocuous today may – 100 years from now – seem like bad deeds. It calls for a degree of caution.”
Brest chaired a committee that developed principles and procedures for renaming buildings at the northern California school. The committee was put together after some students and faculty demanded that Junipero Serra’s name be removed from campus buildings and signage. Serra was the Roman Catholic founder of nine California missions, and many of the missions were built on land native to the Ohlone Indians.
Stanford says it will consider renaming buildings, streets, monuments, endowed positions and prizes when there is strong evidence that retaining the name is inconsistent with the university’s integrity or is harmful to its research and teaching missions and inclusiveness.
Other schools’ approaches have varied. Yale University in Connecticut said last year that it would change the name of a residential college that honors John C. Calhoun, a 19th century alumnus and former U.S. vice president, who was an ardent supporter of slavery.
However, Princeton University in New Jersey declined to remove Woodrow Wilson’s names from its public policy school following calls from black students that the ex-U.S. president was a segregationist. Wilson also served as Princeton’s president from 1902 to 1910.
Despite the University of Michigan’s decision to drop Clarence Cook Little’s name from its Ann Arbor campus, the University of Maine has no plans to remove it from a lecture hall. Little was Maine’s president from 1922 to 1925.
“You just can’t do these ad hoc,” Brest said. “It’s really important to have some criteria, so when you consider removing a name it’s not just a one-off. It’s certainly safer to name (a building) after a tree or a flower than a person, but there still may be good reasons for a university to want to name something after a historical person or even a living person.”
At the University of Michigan, Little’s name has been replaced on the building with the location’s address. The Winchell House sign will be taken down over the summer.
The school established a new review process in January 2017 about historical names in and on campus buildings.
School president, Mark Schlissel, has said the review principles include that anyone requesting changes “carry a heavy burden” to justify it.
Schlissel said that in the Little and Winchell cases he believes “that burden has been met.”
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