Names Written in Light and Shadow

Each building on Grounds is named in honor of a figure, yet the legacies of those individuals are often left unexamined 

Words by Booker Johnson. Photos by Margaret Wadsworth. Graphics by Alyce Yang.

Alderman Library — named after Edwin A. Alderman, the first president of the University — is the main library at the University.

On a typical day, students, visitors and community members would walk around Grounds without knowing the complex histories of the very buildings they pass. Any tour of the University would be incomplete without a stop at the infamous Alderman Library, and hundreds of students live in the Bonnycastle and Gibbons residence halls. But who were Edwin Alderman, Charles Bonnycastle and William and Isabella Gibbons? Each building on Grounds is named in honor of a figure who had close ties with the University, yet the legacies of those individuals are often left unexamined. 

First-year College student and activist Zyahna Bryant described her experience attending a university with controversial historical ties in an email statement to The Cavalier Daily. 

“I believe that racism and other forms of injustice reinvent themselves in order to manifest in new and improved ways that fit the current climate,” Bryant said. “When I look at the University, I think about decades of Black student organizing and resilience, and I am honored to be a part of a legacy of students who have done the work and laid the foundation for me to study here today.”

Overlooked Legacies

Alderman Library — named after Edwin A. Alderman, the first president of the University — is the main library at the University and perhaps the one most familiar to both students and the Charlottesville community. Alderman was an important figure in the University community, but his ties to the fallacious science of eugenics and white supremacy have made his legacy increasingly controversial.

Alderman made the University a hub for eugenics research by recruiting numerous eugenics proponents — such as Harvey Jordan, former dean of the medical school, Orlando White, former director of the University’s biological station and Ivey Lewis, former chair of biology and then dean of the College — to work at the University. Through the research conducted and classes taught by these individuals and others at the University, students and other community members were trained in eugenic racism and contributed to upholding a culture of white supremacy. 

Amidst preparations for the renovation of Alderman Library, English professor Elizabeth Fowler was one of the volunteers working to preserve its card catalog. Although the physical building itself and its resources are invaluable to members of the University community, Fowler stressed that Alderman himself had a problematic legacy.

“His considerable support for the fake science of eugenics was powerfully in the service of white supremacy — it was not just an unfortunate minor belief, but the direction he gave the University in hiring, in the curriculum, in his links with the community,” Fowler said.

Floorplan of Alderman Library // Courtesy U.Va Library

Alderman Library was constructed in 1937 because the Rotunda, which had previously served as the University’s main library, was no longer sufficient to fulfill the University’s needs as a growing research university. Alderman himself had proposed the construction of a new library in 1924, but the project was delayed by the Great Depression and completed and named after him six years following his death.

At the beginning of the Fall 2019 semester, amidst preparations for renovations in Alderman Library, various fliers advocating for the renaming of Alderman Library were anonymously posted around Grounds. Each flyer included the line “Change the name” and a quote from Alderman himself that highlighted his racist and discriminatory views. 

“It is settled, I believe, that this white man who has shown himself so full of courage and force, shall rule in the South, because he is fittest to rule,” one such flyer quoted.

In a meeting with The Cavalier Daily last September, University President Jim Ryan broadly addressed the idea of renaming Alderman and other buildings with similarly notorious namesakes. “We’re in the process of thinking about a number of names,” Ryan said.

University Spokesperson Wes Hester addressed Alderman’s past and confirmed that a discussion around the naming of the library was “ongoing” at the time.

“The naming of facilities on the Grounds is an important and ongoing dialogue, and Alderman Library is a part of that conversation, though no decisions have been made at this time,” Hester said last fall.

Since September, however, there have been no announcements about a forthcoming name change for Alderman Library. Hester stated that there are “no updates to offer on that topic at this time.”

While the physical structure of Alderman Library will see immense change, the building will retain its association to Alderman, and his eugenicist and white supremacist views, through its name.

According to Colin Bird, a politics professor and director of the Politics, Philosophy and Law Program, naming a building after an individual is similar to an endorsement. 

“Any time you’re naming a building or a public facility, it’s an honorific of some kind, and so it seems to me [that] it’s very difficult to divorce the naming [of] buildings or facilities from some kind of endorsement, from some kind of claim that this name is an object of commemoration, of a certain kind of minimal celebration, something of that sort,” he said.

Beyond Alderman Library, there are also other lesser-known examples of buildings named after controversial figures. Many of the Universities first-year dormitories are named after individuals who owned multiple slaves — Charles Bonnycastle, John Emmet and Robley Dunglison, likely among others — and outspoken segregationists such as Richard Dabney. Other dormitories are named after professors who served as advisors to the Confederate Army, such as Milton Humphreys and Socrates Maupin. 

While there are many buildings around Grounds that commemorate those who supported the advancement of white supremacy or were publicly known as slaveholders, there are few buildings known for the opposite. 

The University can be seen as a physical remnant of Thomas Jefferson’s legacy with all of its accolades and controversies. Jefferson’s legacy has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years particularly in light of his relationship with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves with whom he bore children. His ties to eugenics are also among other controversies surrounding his legacy — the presence of eugenics at the University can be traced all the way back even further than the early 1900s to Thomas Jefferson himself.

“It’s very difficult when you have [controversial] people who are woven into the founding of an institution,” Bird said. “I think it’s virtually impossible, realistically, for the institution to completely disassociate itself. I think the mature way to handle [the question of problematic commemoration] is that you continue to use the brand name and try to have an open and honest conversation about the ambivalent character of the personality involved.”

Changing Landscapes

Because they serve as physical markers and as a representation of the University’s community and values, building names around Grounds carry significance and weight. In the context of the larger ongoing local and national discourse about historic memorialization, students at many institutions — Georgetown University, Yale University, the University of California, Berkeley and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill — are confronting their administrations about structure names associated with problematic figures. 

Georgetown University renamed a hall to commemorate the 272 slaves sold to the university in 1838, and Yale renamed a building originally named after white supremacist John C. Calhoun. Similarly, UNC-Chapel Hill changed the name of a building named after Klu-Klux-Klan leader William Saunders, and UC-Berkeley revoked the name of a hall named for a racist lawyer who argued for anti-Asian immigration policies and also expressed racist beliefs against Native Americans and Black people.

“The reason why these names are becoming controversial is because everybody implicitly understands that in naming buildings after these people, you’re honoring those people,” Bird said. “Since those people are being associated with problematic things, people are quite rightly raising the question, why should we be honoring these people if we could be honoring any number of other people who perhaps weren’t quite so malevolent?”

The University has in fact renamed some buildings previously named in honor of known eugenicists who worked at the University. In 2016, the Medical School’s Jordan Hall, named for Harvey Jordan, was renamed as Pinn Hall for Vivian Pinn, the only female African-American student to graduate from the University’s medical school in 1967. 

In 2017, the International Residential College’s Lewis House, named for Ivey Lewis, was renamed as Yen House for W.W. Yen, the first international student to earn a Bachelor of Arts from the University and the first student from China to graduate in 1900. Most recently, in July 2019, the Medical Center’s Barringer Wing — named after Paul Brandon Barringer, a eugenicist, former dean of the medical school and chairman of faculty at the University — was renamed as Collins Wing after Dr. Francis S. Collins, a prominent scientist who graduated from the University in 1970 and currently serves as the director of the National Institutes of Health.

“We’re drawing attention to these people’s names and honoring them in the form of buildings that we are continuing to name after them,” Bird said. “Since it is increasingly salient and people are increasingly drawing attention to the fact that this person was associated with nefarious, racist and white supremacist beliefs, it seems to me that it’s very, very difficult now for us to dissociate the willingness to continue to name these buildings after these people from the wider debate that we are having today about our relationship to racial oppression and slavery.”

Lisa Woolfork is an English professor and community organizer with Black Lives Matter Charlottesville and has advocated, among other things, for the banning of Confederate imagery in Albemarle County schools. She also recently wrote about an articled entitled “‘This Class of Persons:’ When UVA’s White Supremacist Past Meets Its Future” in the “Charlottesville 2017: The Legacy of Race and Inequity” anthology.

“There’s just something about how we measure and evaluate history, and a lot of historians have been doing work about thinking differently about history and thinking in more precise and concise ways that can capture this story [of enslaved laborers] that is really complex,” Woolfork said.

Gibbons House is named after Isabella Gibbons (pictured) and her husband William Gibbons, enslaved laborers at the University during the 19th century.

In March 2015, one of the houses in the Alderman Road Residence Area was named after William and Isabella Gibbons — a married couple and enslaved laborers who were owned by different professors at the University during the 19th century — based upon the recommendation of the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University to name one or more buildings at the University after enslaved persons who had a close connection to the University.

Beyond Gibbons House, there are no other buildings on Grounds named after and in honor of enslaved persons, who were the main source of labor used to build the University and whose labor underscored all of the work and accomplishments of the University. 

“I think one of the dangers that we are facing now, is that there are a lot of people who have made contributions to this University who don’t show up in the archives, and if we only depend on archival records, we will only have the same people we have always have — and those are the people who have access to power,” Woolfork said.

Gibbons House is the only building on Grounds named after and in honor of enslaved persons.

However, according to Woolfork, there’s one “great exception” to this lack of commemoration of enslaved laborers — the African-American History Museum in Washington, D.C., which includes an exhibit about Thomas Jefferson.

“Something that I find so striking is that they have Thomas Jefferson’s statue, and he’s surrounded by all of these red bricks — the same red bricks that are used to build the walls here — the serpentine walls, the same red bricks that are used to build many of our buildings,” Woolfork said. “On the name of each brick is the name of a person, and I think they have records of some of the 600 people that Jefferson owned in his lifetime, and each of their names are on a brick.”

To address the lack of commemoration of enslaved laborers on Grounds, the University began constructing the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers in 2019, which was completed in April. Similar to the exhibit Woolfork described, the memorial also includes individual inscriptions of the names of the over 4,000 enslaved laborers who worked on-Grounds. 

The purpose of the memorial as stated by the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University is to “acknowledge and honor the 4,000 or more individuals who built and maintained the University.” Its unveiling was originally scheduled for April 11, 2020 but was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

This discussion about the significance of names and commemoration extends further than just the names of structures around Grounds. Streets, statues, monuments, plaques and other physical forms of commemoration can be found not just at the University but also the entire Charlottesville community and beyond. According to a study conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2017, there are more than 200 “publicly supported spaces” dedicated to the Confederacy in the state of Virginia alone and over 1,500 spaces nationwide.

“I feel like we have held on to this idea … to celebrate the Old South [and] to celebrate the violence of the Confederacy as just a normal way of life for everyone, even for black folks who were oppressed, and tortured, and murdered, and raped — all for the benefit of the Confederacy,” Woolfork said. “[We have held on to this idea] that we too are supposed to accept that as normal, and I think that any step we can take to stop that is a good step.”

Here on Grounds, many are not aware that they walk past a remnant of Confederate history almost every day. Although not an official “publicly supported space,” Hume Fountain, more popularly known as the Whispering Wall, is located between Monroe Hall and Brown College. It was constructed in 1938 by Edmund Campbell, former dean of the Architecture School, to honor Frank Hume — a Confederate soldier who later went on to serve in the Virginia House of Delegates. The wall reads, “A MEMORIAL TO THE HONORABLE FRANK HUME — A DEVOTED VIRGINIAN WHO SERVED HIS NATIVE STATE IN CIVIL WAR AND LEGISLATIVE HALL.”

Perhaps the most well-known example of Confederate commemoration in Charlottesville is the statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, around which violence erupted during the white supremacist rallies of August 2017. 

In 2016, Bryant, then a student at Charlottesville High School, started a petition to remove the Lee Park statue. Charlottesville City Council voted to remove the statue back in January 2017 but ran into legal challenges because of a Virginia statute that prevented cities and towns from removing war memorials. 

New legislation passed during Virginia’s 2020 legislative session will enable the City of Charlottesville to remove this statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, around which violence erupted during the white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville of August 2017. // Christina Anton

During the 2020 General Assembly, the state legislature successfully passed a bill co-sponsored by University professor and newly elected Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, that would enable a locality to “remove, relocate, or alter any monument or memorial for war veterans located in its public space, regardless of when erected.” Virginia Governor Ralph Northam signed the bill into law April 11.

Bryant’s activism helped lead to the new legislation, and she has continued her work — notably as a member of the Virginia African American Advisory Board created by Northam’s administration in September 2019 — while also being a student. According to her, student organizers at universities face many obstacles. 

“[There] is the disappointing fact that these institutions have a way of draining students who do the work,” she said. “Everything from co-opting their ideas while failing to credit them to shutting vocal student leaders out of prestigious spaces simply because they pose a threat to the status quo.”

Bryant emphasized that there should be a push to see the change of names of these historical buildings around Grounds but that the effort shouldn’t end there. “I believe that the solution should be two-fold,” she said. “I believe that there should be a push to rename buildings and areas [on Grounds] that have been originally named after those who have fought for the oppression and bondage of others. I do believe that in most cases, simply recontextualizing racist symbols within their current spaces is not an adequate solution.”

Bryant also has a specific image of how the “two-fold” solution should work. “This looks like fully funding and resourcing spaces and departments that do the work of extending those conversations that center the histories that we have collectively forgotten,” she said. “There can be no reconciliation without the redistribution of capital and other resources.”

The first step to grappling with the complicated histories associated with the names of certain buildings on Grounds might be re-naming buildings after arguably less contentious figures. 

Woolfork suggests perhaps dedicating more public spaces in honor of black individuals, who were often victims of the violence perpetrated by the controversial figures after whom many buildings are currently named. 

“I think we need more buildings named for Black folks, more ways to honor and recognize the incalculable contributions that have been made by Black people in this community, as well as in Charlottesville city as a whole,” Woolfork said. “I think that that’s something I would like to see as part of a larger reckoning with the University history. There’s other communities and populations who I’m sure are also quite worthy of that type of honorific.”

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