As part of a larger effort to reduce and contextualize memorials for white supremacists, the University of Mississippi will rename an administrative building that currently honors a former Mississippi governor who said mass lynching was a price worth paying to “maintain white supremacy.”
In a report released on Thursday, an Ole Miss committee dedicated to evaluating the way the school’s history is commemorated announced that most of the buildings on its campus would not be changed, even when they were named after slave-owners. Instead, officials said they would add plaques that added historical context about the various racist histories of those namesakes.
But they made an exception for Vardaman Hall, named after James K. Vardaman, a white politician who even in the late 19th century was considered radical for the degree to which he fervently believed in white supremacy.
Vardaman, who also served as a Mississippi state senator, was “distinctly unworthy of honor,” the Ole Miss report said.
“From the state’s highest elected position, Vardaman...argued that education ruined black Mississippians and made the dismantling of African American education in the state a priority,” the committee members added. They noted that when the building was first dedicated to Vardaman, in 1929, he was already understood to be a “virulent racist.”
The university has not provided a timeline for when the building will officially be renamed.
The administrators, alumni, and students on the committee also called for Ole Miss to add plaques to four additional buildings in order to note that they were named after slave-holders and others who sought to prevent black Mississippians from accessing education. Elsewhere, plaques will acknowledge the projects on campus that were built using slave labor.
Universities’ various efforts to acknowledge the historical and modern impact of white supremacy have attracted significant controversy in recent years. Princeton University declined to rename a school and college after former President Woodrow Wilson, a major supporter of segregation, while Yale University agreed to rename one of its residential colleges, which was named after slavery advocate and former Vice President John C. Calhoun.
The Ole Miss committee acknowledged that they were delving into a heated argument with their recommendations.
“The University’s stakeholders struggle with their collective identity, because UM is an institution made up by members who have very different identities related to the history of the South and the nation, identities that are dear to them,” they wrote.
This isn’t the university’s first attempt to critically examine the racist legacies of the individuals and organizations memorialized across the campus. Those efforts first gained momentum in 2014, when former University of Mississippi Chancellor Dan Jones released an “action plan” with the specific goal of doing more “to improve our environment for diversity and inclusion.”
The report Jones released specifically called for the university to “offer more history, putting the past into context,” by “telling the story of Mississippi’s struggles with slavery, secession, segregation, and their aftermath.”
Last year, Ole Miss officials installed a plaque at the base of a prominent Confederate statue on campus, noting that the statue had been a gathering place for mobs who actively sought to prevent the admission of the university’s first black student in 1962.
Although the student, James Meredith, successfully graduated a year later, his admission prompted massive riots and necessitated the arrival of federal troops. Two men, a French journalist and a white jukebox repairman, were killed in the chaos the night after Meredith arrived.
“This historic structure is a reminder of the University’s past and of its current and ongoing commitment to open its hallowed halls to all who seek truth and knowledge and wisdom,” the plaque concluded.
The removal and alteration of Confederate memorials and other monuments celebrating white supremacists from bygone eras has been a source of major controversy even outside universities.
In New Orleans, efforts to take down Confederate monuments sparked mass protests and several protracted court battles earlier this year. Four statues slated for removal were ultimately taken down in the middle of the night, with no warning.
Crews wore masks and helmets to avoid being identified, and even the company name on the truck that lifted one statue off its plinth was blacked out, NBC News reported.
In the 2014 report that led Ole Miss to take action, Jones acknowledged that some of the university’s actions would be controversial—but said that avoiding controversy wouldn’t solve any long-term problems.
“Too often when viewpoints are wide-ranging and emotional, the easy answers for leaders is a non-decision, freezing people at a point in time and putting progress off to another day,” Jones wrote. “To me, that is not leadership. And our mission as a university is to lead.”