Georgia regents: Buildings named for people with ties to slavery won’t change

The Richard B. Russell Jr. Special Collections Libraries Building at the University of Georgia in Athens is named after the former governor and U.S. senator who is also described as someone who fought against civil rights legislation. A University System of Georgia advisory group recommended the building's name be changed, along with more than six dozen buildings and colleges across the system. The state's Board of Regents on Monday, Nov. 22, 2021 decided against such changes. University of Georgia file photo.
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The Richard B. Russell Jr. Special Collections Libraries Building at the University of Georgia in Athens is named after the former governor and U.S. senator who is also described as someone who fought against civil rights legislation. A University System of Georgia advisory group recommended the building's name be changed, along with more than six dozen buildings and colleges across the system. The state's Board of Regents on Monday, Nov. 22, 2021 decided against such changes. University of Georgia file photo.

Credit: Peter Frey

Credit: Peter Frey

The Georgia Board of Regents decided Monday it will not move forward with an advisory group’s recommendations to rename more than six dozen buildings and colleges on public university campuses statewide.

The board’s decision was criticized by several people who pressed in recent months for the changes, saying many buildings are named after slave owners and segregationists. One group that wanted the name of Henry W. Grady removed from the University of Georgia’s journalism and mass communications school, called the decision “not surprising.”

“It demonstrates to us the board’s support of racism and the upholding of white supremacy,” the group, #RenameGrady, said in a statement. “This failure signals a willful ignorance of the history of people of color and a disregard for the physical, emotional, and mental well-being of (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) students who have to walk the halls of these institutions every day.”

Grady, editor of The Atlanta Constitution after the Civil War, was a cheerleader for the reconstruction of Atlanta and the “New South”. Critics, though, say some of his speeches and writings supported white supremacy.

ExploreA year into University System of Georgia’s renaming push, little to see

An advisory group was created in June 2020 to review the names of buildings in the system’s 26 schools. The group, headed by Albany State University President Marion Fedrick, reviewed nearly 900 buildings and schools named after people, companies or landmarks. Its 181-page report recommended name changes to 75 buildings and colleges. It recommended adding context about the building namesakes that would be determined by the college or university to the names of 21 buildings.

System officials had been criticized for not moving fast enough on presenting recommendations. The group said in its report that its work was completed in a condensed timeframe supported by a single historian, but yet attempted to being “thorough, deliberate and concise.”

The 19-member Board of Regents did not explain why it decided not to change any names. Some involved in the decision-making process said it would have been a challenge to change some names and not others. The board said it considered several factors in its decision, such as the totality of the person’s contributions to the state and nation, when the building was named after the person and the person’s relationship to the college or university.

Many of the buildings were named decades ago by leaders of the colleges and universities. The Regents now approve name changes.

“I believe it is important for students and the system to know and understand the history on our campuses and in our communities as we work together to build a better future,” Regent Don Waters said in a statement. “History is a great teacher, and we and our institutions can learn much from this effort.”

Regent Sarah-Elizabeth Langford Reed, noting 54% of the University System of Georgia’s 341,000 students are non-white, said they must create an inclusive learning environment.

“This is incredibly important as the Board works to ensure future namings reflect the strength of Georgia’s diverse communities,” she said in a statement.

About 20 buildings recommended for name changes are named after slaveholders, a half-dozen after Confederate leaders and 10 former governors. Most of the people, almost all of them men, lived during the 19th century. Many of the buildings recommended for name changes are at the University of Georgia, the oldest school in the state. One building is at Fort Valley State University, a historically Black school.

Some, like former University of Georgia President O.C. Aderhold, kept Black students from enrolling there. A hall at the university is named after him. One, Joseph M. Brown, justified the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank, killed in what many describe as an act of antisemitism. A Valdosta State University residence hall is named after Brown, a former governor.

The group recommended name changes to several buildings named after Richard B. Russell Jr., a former governor who served as a U.S. senator from 1933 to 1971. The committee’s report said Russell used his political power “to preserve the status quo and deny equality to African Americans.”

The Regents’ lack of action on the recommendations comes as many colleges and local governments across the nation in recent years have renamed buildings previously named after white supremacists, slaveholders or Confederate leaders.

Atlanta’s school board last year changed the name of Grady High School to Midtown High School and Joseph E. Brown Middle School to Herman J. Russell West End Academy. Brown, a former governor, defended slavery. Russell was an iconic Black entrepreneur.

The Atlanta board earlier this year renamed Forrest Hill Academy, an alternative high school previously named after a Confederate general who was active in the Ku Klux Klan, after Hank Aaron, the baseball great and philanthropist who died in January.

The factors for reviewing building names

A University System of Georgia advisory group was tasked last year with reviewing the names of buildings on its 26 colleges and universities. The group identified 878 buildings and colleges named for individuals or groups of individuals, companies or landmarks. It looked at whether someone supported the systemic mistreatment of others or created obstacles in determining if the building or school named after them should be renamed.

The Georgia Board of Regents said it took these additional factors into account:

  • The totality of the person’s contributions to Georgia, the nation and society
  • The quality of the evidence
  • The reasons behind the naming decision when it was made
  • The person’s relationship to the institution.

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