Thousands of people have signed a Change.org petition asking University of Alabama officials to rename Morgan Hall, so-called for Alabama senator, Confederate Army general, and Ku Klux Klan leader John Tyler Morgan. Instead, the signatories contend, the hall should be named for To Kill A Mockingbird author Harper Lee, who passed away at the age of 89 on Friday.
Petition author and student Jessica Hauger argued in a letter to university president Dr. Stuart Bell that "Lee was doubtless the University's greatest contribution to literature, and it would be more than fitting for our English building to bear her name, which reflects so much more accurately the values of the University of Alabama, than that of white supremacist John Tyler Morgan."
She added that Morgan "used his legislative power to promote racist policies and practices," and "worked to curtail the voting rights of African-Americans, hoping to repeal the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution."
Hauger told the Crimson White, a student newspaper, that "it’s appalling to me that students of color have to walk around buildings named after people who wouldn’t have wanted them to get an education and might have even wanted to harm them."
The petition, posted online on Friday, has so far garnered more than 2,300 signatures. Some offer support to the cause out of love and respect for Lee, while others want Morgan's name gone. One commenter wrote, "I'm not a huge fan of Harper Lee, but screw the glorification of KKK members and the confederacy. Come on."
Morgan Hall is not the only campus building named for a racist historical figure. According to the Crimson White, a number of buildings are named for "KKK members, eugenicists, pro-slavery advocates and vocal racists." The outlet points to Nott Hall, named for Josiah Nott, as an especially egregious example. Nott offered a pseudo-scientific defense of slavery, and said that "the negro achieves his greatest perfection, physical and moral, and also greatest longevity, in a state of slavery."
But, the Crimson White added, no attempt to change these names has proved successful:
Some UA faculty members said every few years, students seem to struggle with the issue, yet nothing has changed. As more and more students discover the darker parts of the people immortalized on the campus buildings, it raises the question about who are the people behind the names and if they are worthy to be such a fundamental part of the University.
Lisa Lindquist Dorr, who serves as associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and opposes the name change, told The Washington Post that it's important to recognize Morgan's contribution to the university—namely, helping to resuscitate the university after it was largely burned down by Union troops. “While [Morgan's] racial beliefs are appalling," she said, "We need to remember both his contribution to the university while we acknowledge that his racial beliefs in no way reflect the values of the university today." She concluded, “I’m in favor of keeping the building names but being very clear about why this person was honored at that time—and how we can come to disassociate ourselves from that legacy.”
In a statement, a UA representative said "we share in the respect and admiration for Ms. Lee," adding, "In the past, buildings on our campus have been named for men and women whose contributions to the University and society were viewed through the context of the times they lived. Their history does not define us. Rather, it informs us and moves us forward. Through our strategic planning process that is underway, all points of view are being heard."
The argument that Morgan's name is worth marking on campus ground does not hold water for many. The Crimson White's editorial board came out in favor of renaming the building, stating that "John Tyler Morgan’s name only reminds students of terrorism," and that "the choice is easy, and it’s long past time for change."
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.