Opinion: ‘We are Grady’ But who was Henry Grady?

A petition calling for the University of Georgia to rename the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication now has nearly 9,000 signatures.
A petition calling for the University of Georgia to rename the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication now has nearly 9,000 signatures.

Graduates lead effort to change name of noted University of Georgia journalism school

Can a public building be divorced from the Confederate sympathizer for whom it is named?

Campuses across the South are asking that question, including the University of Georgia where pressure is mounting to change the name of the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.

The #RenameGrady campaign contends the college should be named for its first African American graduate Charlayne Hunter- Gault rather than Henry Grady.

The movement galvanized in the last month after Sam Jones, who graduated UGA this year with a master's degree in journalism, wrote a column in the Red & Black, the independent UGA student newspaper, declaring, "I don't want a degree I'm proud of earning to be associated with a dead racist. And neither does anyone else who values what is taught at the school…We don't have to look far for something better. Better would be celebrating the first black woman to attend UGA and the first to graduate from the journalism school: 1963 grad and award-winning journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault."

A native son of Athens, Grady was an acclaimed orator and journalist. Born in 1850, Grady graduated UGA and became a spokesman for "the New South," encouraging Northern investment in Atlanta. A Midtown high school, Atlanta's public hospital and a South Georgia county are all named for Grady. (The Atlanta School Board is considering changing the name of Grady High School after students petitioned earlier this year.)

But Grady was also an advocate of a white supremacist political economy, according to University of Massachusetts at Amherst journalism historian Kathy Roberts Forde. Her research has shown that Grady railed against "Negro domination" and normalized the ideology of white control in Georgia that lasted for generations.

Past arguments that Grady's name shouldn't adorn public institutions went nowhere, but a Change.org petition to erase the Grady legacy at UGA has nearly 9,000 signatures. The continuing protests show many Georgians are fed up with the vestiges of racism and want reformation. Removing a tainted names on public buildings could be a start.

“If there ever has been a moment in this country’s history where people are centered on African American history and speaking plainly about American history and an anti-black racism, this is the moment,” said Forde.

While the University System of Georgia and Board of Regents have formed a committee to examine building names across campuses, the announcement of the review sidestepped any reference to Confederate memorials or Black Lives Matter, an indication of how fraught with controversy this process could be.

Amber Roessner, co-founder of the campaign #RenameGrady and an associate professor in the University of Tennessee's School of Journalism & Electronic Media, applauds the creation of the committee as an initial step.

“But we will not rest until change is enacted, until symbols of white supremacy have been deconstructed and dismantled,” she said.

In the past, some Grady College alums have argued the name holds clout and should remain. The j-school’s motto is “We are Grady.”

But Mandi Woodruff, a 2009 Grady grad and now executive editor of LendingTree, said, "Maybe Grady rolls off the tongue easily and fits nicely on a branded school polo shirt or beer koozie, but is that what we're really prioritizing here? I would personally be thrilled to explain to someone who has never heard of the Charlayne Hunter-Gault School of Journalism and Mass Communication that it was formerly called Grady but school leadership and alumni worked together to rename it to usher in a new era of inclusivity and recognize a trailblazing journalist who paved the way for generations of Black journalists to receive the quality education they deserved."

Forde understands graduates may feel an emotional attachment to Grady College even while having little sense of its namesake.

“They have no background knowledge of who that person was. But the soft power that statues, monuments and building names hold is not insignificant,” said Forde. She is an editor of the book “Journalism and Jim Crow: The Press and the Making of White Supremacy in the New South,” due out next spring. “These things are part of a long long history of anti-Black racism. When these names are emblazoned across public landscapes, they are telling a story.”

Those stories have been sanitized and romanticized, Forde said.

“During my education in the state of Georgia and at the university, I learned three sentences about Henry W. Grady: He was a masterful orator; he was the managing editor at The Atlanta Constitution; and he championed a progressive, New South,” said Roessner. “Like my fellow classmates, I had been exposed to the whitewashing of American history, the mythologization of the lost cause.”

After co-editing a volume about social justice crusader and advocacy journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Roessner said she learned that “Henry W. Grady’s New South was the latest version of the Old South; his vision of progress was predicated upon the convict leasing system, what scholars have acknowledged was slavery by another name.””

Kimberly Davis, a member of the #RenameGrady task force, is a fourth generation Athens resident, and her ancestors include enslaved people. It's time, she said, to tell the truth about Henry Grady and other "heroes" of the South who deprived Black citizens of their rights.

“It is only then can we get the best blueprint for who should be honored and why,” said Davis, a journalist and researcher who earned a master’s degree from UGA in 2008. “I’ve heard so many stories of Black students in high schools across the state who do not want to come to UGA because they don’t feel it is a welcoming place for them. We are losing far more than we gain by keeping Grady.”

Hunter-Gault’s courage enabled other Black students to attend UGA, including Davis’ parents who met at UGA in 1970, nine years after the campus was integrated. “Generations of my family were denied entrance to the university because they are Black,” said Davis. “It is time to honor the woman who made our entrance into UGA possible.”

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