by Elizabeth P. Latt
A Davidson County Chancery Court granted Vanderbilt permission to remove the name “Confederate” from one of its residence halls and supported the University’s argument that the continued use of the word contradicted Vanderbilt’s goal of achieving “the kind of inclusive and welcoming environment that is essential for a world-class university.”
The Tennessee Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy had filed suit against the University in an effort to block the decision to rename the building on the Peabody College campus of Vanderbilt.
In issuing his decision, released today, Davidson County Chancellor Irvin Kilcrease said Vanderbilt “sufficiently complied with its obligations to UDC” by installing a plaque on the building explaining the history of the construction of the building. Vanderbilt has said that the historic marker will remain in its current location outside the lobby. Kilcrease further stated, “Vanderbilt may remove the name ‘Confederate’ from the building without any further obligations to UDC, other than to maintain said plaque on the building.”
“We are delighted with this decision. It is an affirmation of Vanderbilt’s freedom to continue building a great university, where everyone is welcome in word and deed. It is also in the best spirit of Vanderbilt’s founding mission, which was to heal the wounds between the North and the South,” said Chancellor Gordon Gee. “As we have always stated, the important history of the building and the people it honors will be recognized through the plaque that was placed on Memorial Hall in 1989 and will remain there.”
The former Confederate Memorial Hall was built in 1935 in part with funding by the UDC in order to house, at no or low cost, women descendants of Confederate soldiers who were nominated by the UDC and accepted for admission to what was then called George Peabody College of Teachers. Vanderbilt assumed ownership of the building when the institutions merged in 1979. The housing provision was discontinued after Vanderbilt first leased and then acquired the dormitory through merger.
Vanderbilt paid for significant renovations to the building in the 1980s. In 1989, a plaque was added to the building to explain its origins and historical significance, as well as the contributions of the United Daughters of the Confederacy to its construction. Vanderbilt has stated that the historic marker fulfills any commitment to maintain the building as a memorial to Confederate War veterans.
In his decision, Kilcrease noted that the original agreement between the parties occurred when segregation based on race was legal and practiced in the South. However, federal legislation and the U.S. Supreme Court have since rendered segregation illegal.
“When UDC and Peabody executed the contracts, they apparently did not realize the public policy on race would change and that discrimination against minorities, including African-Americans, would be against the law and further, that a stigma would be attached to the name ‘Confederacy’ because of its relationship to the institution of slavery.”
Kilcrease said this stigma “is in contradiction of [Vanderbilt’s] policy of diversity and makes it extremely difficult to recruit minority faculty members and minority students. It is impractical and unduly burdensome for Vanderbilt to continue to perform that part of the contract pertaining to the maintenance of the name ‘Confederate’ on the building, and at the same time pursue its academic purpose of obtaining a racially diverse faculty and student body.”
Vanderbilt filed a motion for summary judgment July 31, 2003 in the lawsuit brought by the Tennessee Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Vanderbilt sought dismissal of the UDC’s claims that the renaming breached earlier agreements between the UDC and the University.
In renaming the building Memorial Hall in September 2002, the University said the new name is intended “to honor the men and women who have lost their lives in this country’s armed conflicts.”
The University has maintained that the name change reflects efforts by the University to create a positive, inclusive environment and to ensure that Vanderbilt facilities and symbols do not inadvertently reflect values that are inconsistent with the University’s mission.
Posted 10/1/03 at 10:00 a.m.